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Coroner wants to appeal juvenile autopsy release, despite court order

The Clark County coroner’s office gave notice Friday that it again will appeal a judge’s order to hand over juvenile autopsy records to the Las Vegas Review-Journal despite already spending more than $75,000 in taxpayer money during three years of appeals.

Attorneys for the county filed a request to delay a Nov. 30 deadline to hand over the records, as they plan to ask Clark County commissioners for approval to continue to fight to limit the release of documents. Commissioners are scheduled to meet Dec. 1.

The news organization has been seeking the records to determine how well the county’s Child Protective Services division protects children who are abused and neglected, and whether the coroner properly investigates child deaths.

Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook questioned the county’s further spending of tax money on appeals.

“Clark County has proved especially adept at three things throughout this case: stalling, wasting taxpayer money and putting the interests of the bureaucracy ahead of the interests of vulnerable juveniles caught in the child welfare system,” Cook aid Friday. “The failures of this system must be far worse than anyone has imagined. Why else fight so hard and spend so much money to keep critical records secret? These documents tell an important story. We will prevail in court — again and again and again, as many times as necessary — and we will hold institutions and individuals accountable.”

Supreme Court justices ruled in February that autopsies are public records but directed the District Court to determine whether the coroner should redact any private medical information before releasing the documents.

District Judge Jim Crockett ruled in October that the coroner had failed to redact more than 600 autopsies, so it lost its right to redact those records. He required the documents be released by Nov. 30. Crockett also ruled that the county must pay the Review-Journal’s attorney fees.

But the county indicated Friday that it will continue to fight, saying it believes Crockett was wrong when he required the records to be released unredacted.

“(D)isclosure of autopsy reports in unredacted from (sic) prior to the completion of the appeal process would undermine the coroner’s argument and render the appeal process moot,” wrote Jackie Nichols, outside counsel for the county.

County spokesman Erik Pappa said Tuesday that the county had spent $74,822.50 through Oct. 29 on the case and probably $2,000 to $3,000 more since then.

At last month’s hearing, Crockett blasted the county for its failure to redact more than a few sample autopsies.

“The problem I see with the coroner’s almost glib redactions is that it is as if the coroner’s office doesn’t accept that they are a public servant,” Crockett said. “It’s upsetting that this type of heel-dragging has been going on in such a public records case.”

The Review-Journal for years has been investigating child deaths and Clark County Child Protective Services’ failure to remove children from dangerous homes, including the death of Aaron Jones, who died after being placed with his father, who had been convicted of child abuse.

Autopsy records often show prior injuries and other factors that can help determine whether the county should have removed a child before death, but the coroner’s office has argued that the records also contain private medical information.

Commissioner Tick Segerblom said he is leaning toward opposing another appeal.

“My general inclination is to vote against an appeal, but I haven’t met with the county attorneys and don’t want make a commitment until I hear both sides,” he said. “Without hearing both sides, it’s crazy to violate the law and continue to lose money trying to enforce that.”

Commissioners Marilyn Kirkpatrick and Justin Jones said they have not talked to staff about the issue so they couldn’t say how they will vote.

“Honestly, I haven’t looked that far in advance,” Kirkpatrick, chairwoman of the commission, said Friday. “My big focus is the coronavirus.”

The rest of the commissioners did not return requests for comment.

Contact Arthur Kane at akane@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ArthurMKane on Twitter. Kane is a member of the Review-Journal’s investigative team, focusing on reporting that holds leaders and agencies accountable and exposes wrongdoing.

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