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NC Senate passes bill keeping autopsies public record, but advocates stay vigilant

North Carolina General Assembly
North Carolina General Assembly.

State lawmakers dropped language from a bill that would have shielded autopsies from public review, but the Senate’s thumbs-up on the revised measure June 12 may not be the end of the issue. 

The previous language could return in a future session, state Sen. Danny Britt Jr. (R-Lumberton) said at a Senate Judiciary meeting June 4.

The Senate voted unanimously June 12 to approve House Bill 250 with amendments, meaning that the bill must return to the House of Representatives for a concurrence vote before heading to the governor’s desk. The House could make changes at that time too. 

The bill changes some of the duties of medical examiners across the state.

When a death is under criminal investigation, the latest version of HB250 requires a medical examiner to get approval from law enforcement before inspecting physical evidence or documents not on the body but at a related scene that could provide key information about what led to a death. 

The bill has gone through several editions since controversy over keeping autopsy information private erupted in May.

An earlier version would have blocked the public —  even family members — from obtaining records from the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner if law enforcement officers were investigating the death as a potential crime or if the death was associated with pending criminal charges.

Different takes

The North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, a proponent of keeping some autopsy reports out of the public’s view, pushed for the change. Officials from the organization said such a restriction would ensure a fairer trial by making sure prospective jurors didn’t see the information before a criminal case was prosecuted.

Critics pointed out that autopsy reports could be instrumental in correcting inaccurate law enforcement narratives about police shootings or deaths in jails.

Advocates also worried about the impact of shielding death records from the public. Disability Rights North Carolina shared their concerns with the legislature in May over the consequences of keeping information from family members of the deceased.

Britt said earlier in the committee process that if autopsy records were no longer going to be public, lawmakers would have made a change so family members of victims could access the information.

Corye Dunn, director of public policy at Disability Rights North Carolina, said while she’s pleased the records won’t be shielded from public view for now, “we also know that proposals have a way of resurfacing at the General Assembly.”

Advocates will stay on the lookout for the language to reappear and will oppose it if that happens, Dunn said.

“We never have the illusion that anything is over while [the legislative] session is still ongoing,” she said.

Other advocates also had transparency concerns. Kerwin Pittman of Emancipate NC — a group that advocates for the rights of people in the prison and jail system — told North Carolina Health News he worried that without access to autopsy reports, public malfeasance, such as in cases when law enforcement officers kill someone, might not be exposed.

Disability Rights NC also questioned the reasoning put forward by the district attorneys’ conference for needing the change to preserve the fairness of the judicial process. That is “flawed,” the organization said in a written statement, in part because potential jurors can already see news coverage with crime scene footage and statements from family members, and that law enforcement could still release parts of the autopsy before trial.  

Before the bill went to the Senate floor June 12, Britt met with a gaggle of reporters after a June 4 committee meeting where the revised bill was discussed. He told them he had heard no concerns about shielding autopsies from anyone other than the media. 

When asked by NC Health News whether organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union had any concerns about the language, Britt turned to a nearby news camera and said, “I’m not concerned about the ACLU’s concerns about anything really.”

The ACLU of North Carolina did not respond to requests for comment from NC Health News.

Public health ramifications

Disability Rights North Carolina also said that withholding autopsy reports could keep public health officials from getting important information that could help them respond more quickly to infectious diseases or previously undetected side effects of new drugs. 

Dunn pointed to the example of Wilmington, which she described as the “front line of the fentanyl wave” in the state. When the drug first appeared in toxicology reports of overdose victims, no one at the time knew the reason for the spike in the drug-related deaths, she said, so the autopsy information was critical.

“If someone had withheld that information for the sake of finding out who was responsible and holding them to account — focusing on the criminal piece — more people would have died,” Dunn said.

Often when someone dies in jail under suspicious circumstances, the death involves drugs — either from overdose or withdrawal, said Roxanne Saucier, a harm reduction advocate. It’s important for advocates like herself, she said, to know the circumstances of the death so they can support prevention measures. 

Impact on the medical examiner’s office 

If the current bill becomes law, it also would require the medical examiner system to keep custody of certain bodies for “at least 72 weekday hours,” according to a NC Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson, “which puts additional strain on the system and could unnecessarily delay the release of the decedent’s body.” 

Instead, the time period should be more definitive such as stating just “72 hours,” the spokesperson said in an email to NC Health News.

DHHS has had “ongoing conversations” with the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys about addressing concerns in the bill, the spokesperson said.

The medical examiner system is made up of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, local medical examiners and eight autopsy centers across the state, according to DHHS.

Part of the issue is that the system is “fragile, understaffed and underfunded,” the spokesperson said. From 2019 to 2023, the medical examiner system saw a 26% increase in cases, which the spokesperson said “was undoubtedly influenced” by a 69% increase in suspected drug overdose cases.

As of January 2024, the state medical examiner’s office, or OCME, had a 20% vacancy rate for permanent state positions, according to DHHS.

“A backlog in OCME creates challenges for law enforcement, attorneys, our public health partners and for the families and communities left behind,” the DHHS spokesperson wrote.

Gov. Roy Cooper’s recommended state budget for the fiscal year that starts July 1 would help address this by adding 35 permanent, state-funded positions to the workforce of the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, DHHS said. It would also double payments per case to local medical examiners and develop a 24-hour call center and self-service portal for timely case status information, among other provisions, the spokesperson wrote.

The General Assembly has yet to propose any spending plans. The House could present its proposal early next week, according to WRAL.

The office of State Sen. Phil Berger (R-Eden) did not respond to a request for comment on whether the budget may include more resources for the medical examiner system.

This article first appeared on North Carolina Health News and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

North Carolina Health News is an independent, non-partisan, not-for-profit, statewide news organization dedicated to covering all things health care in North Carolina. Visit NCHN at northcarolinahealthnews.org.