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Nevada Supreme Court again orders autopsy records released

Updated December 30, 2020 - 6:54 pm

For the second time in two days, the Nevada Supreme Court on Wednesday denied Clark County’s attempts to withhold unredacted child autopsies, requiring that the records be released to the Review-Journal.

The county had filed an emergency request late Tuesday, asking that the state high court revisit its initial ruling, which ordered that the records be released by District Judge Jim Crockett’s Wednesday deadline. But on late Wednesday, the majority of a three-justice panel upheld the deadline, again ruling against the county.

No autopsies had been released by 6 p.m.

“The coroner is now in contempt of a court order,” Review-Journal attorney Maggie McLetchie said late Wednesday. “Just as the coroner acts as if it is above the reach of the public records act, it is acting as if it is above a binding court order.”

Clark County spokesman Erik Pappa declined to comment Wednesday.

In the county’s emergency request, attorneys argued that the same three-justice panel’s Tuesday decision “overlooks or misapprehends” several factors of the case, writing that “irreparable harm would occur to the decedents’ family members as they would be forced to re-live the trauma of the death of their loved one and be subjected to embarrassment and stigmatization based on the disclosure of private health and medical information.”

The Review-Journal has been pursuing the documents for about four years, one of the longest public records fights in the news organization’s history. Throughout the legal battle, the county has never presented evidence that families were concerned about the records’ release.

“I certainly hope the court will consider imposing sanctions on Clark County for contempt,” Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said. “When a government that makes law gets away with ignoring the law and ignoring the courts, it must be held accountable.”

In July 2017, the Review-Journal filed a lawsuit against the coroner’s office seeking the release of the autopsies as part of an investigation into county child protective services’ handling of cases in which children died. The county for years had taken the position that autopsy reports were confidential even though the documents are not specifically exempted by the Nevada Public Records Act.

In February, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled that autopsies are public records but sent the case back to Crockett to determine whether there was any private medical information that should be redacted.

Crockett offered to review more than 600 autopsies himself to see if there were valid privacy concerns — until he discovered that the coroner hadn’t bothered to redact most of the autopsies. At that point, he blasted the county for dragging its heels and violating the spirit of public records laws. He ordered the autopsies released by Dec. 30.

“Why the coroner’s office does not link arms with the Review-Journal and provide records freely and voluntarily is unimaginable,” he said at the time. “Everything demonstrates the coroner’s office is bound and determined to circumvent and avoid the Nevada Public Records Act by stonewalling and obfuscating.”

Despite already spending about $80,000 in taxpayer money for the fight, the coroner decided to again appeal Crockett’s order to release the records, and Clark County commissioners, except Commissioner Tick Segerblom, voted earlier this month to approve more funding for the effort.

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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