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Nevada Supreme Court orders autopsies to be released

Updated December 29, 2020 - 6:19 pm

The Nevada Supreme Court on Tuesday rejected Clark County’s request to withhold child autopsy records pending appeal, requiring the coroner’s office to release the documents to the Review-Journal by Wednesday’s deadline.

But late Tuesday, attorneys for the county submitted a request for the Supreme Court to revisit their decision, arguing that the court ruling “overlooks or misapprehends” several factors of the case.

“(I)rreparable 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 attorneys argued in the request.

County spokesman Erik Pappa declined comment.

Earlier Tuesday, a split three-justice panel ruled that public interest is not in favor of a stay. Justices Mark Gibbons and Abbi Silver rejected the stay request, and Justice Lidia S. Stiglich dissented, saying a stay was appropriate until the appeal is resolved.

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.

“It appears taxpayers are on the hook for yet another baseless appeal,” Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said Tuesday. “Our courts have called out Clark County for willfully violating the Nevada Public Records Act for years. It’s time for the secrecy to end.”

In July 2017, the Review-Journal filed a lawsuit against the Clark County coroner’s office seeking the release of hundreds of juvenile autopsies as part of an investigation into county child protective services’ handling of cases where 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 District Judge Jim 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. “Everything demonstrates the coroner’s office is bound and determined to circumvent and avoid the Nevada Public Records Act by stonewalling and obfuscating.”

Read Crockett’s full statement.

Despite costing taxpayers about $80,000 for the fight, the coroner decided to again appeal Crockett’s order to release the records, and Clark County commissioners, except Commissioner Tick Segerblom, all 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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