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Following Yarnell deaths, bill would limit access to autopsy photos

Karen Fann

Rep. Karen Fann, R-Prescott

An Arizona lawmaker wants to ensure autopsy photos and videos can only be released with a Superior Court judge’s approval.

State Rep. Karen Fann, a Republican from Prescott, is proposing legislation this month that would have a judge review sensitive images such as photos and X-rays from autopsies before they are released.

“My bill does absolutely nothing to change First Amendment rights at all,” Fann told The Associated Press.

She said the bill stems from county medical examiners concerned about getting embroiled in legal action by anyone seeking the images. The issue became especially apparent this summer as news organizations reported on the Yarnell Hill fire that killed 19 firefighters.

The Yavapai County medical examiner’s office was named in a lawsuit in which The Arizona Republic and KPNX-TV sought investigative records and photos from the fire scene, but not photos of human remains or personal effects.

Both news outlets later dropped the medical examiner’s office from the suit but maintained one against the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office.

The request for records from the sheriff’s office led to a series of hearings where widows and family members of the 19 firefighters testified that releasing more records in general would be intrusive. Both media outlets dropped the suit Nov. 5.

Fann said medical examiners “don’t want to be put in the middle of this stuff. If you have a compelling reason, let a judge make the decisions.”

The bill also stipulates that no legal action can arise against a county medical examiner’s office or its employees for lawfully disclosing any images.

David Bodney, a media law attorney who represented the TV station and newspaper in their suit, consulted on Fann’s legislation.

Bodney said the bill offers “a context that presumably gives medical examiners greater certainty about their duties under the law.” The legislation would put into law a 2009 ruling by the Arizona Court of Appeals, Bodney added.

The Court of Appeals ruled a court must inspect public documents that raise a conflict between public interest and strong privacy concerns.

Fann says the bill, which she introduced Thursday, has already gained bipartisan support.

Paula Casey, executive director of the Arizona Newspaper Association, said she hasn’t looked at the legislation closely but is hoping it will be a consensus bill that satisfies everyone.

“One thing people don’t understand is, media may want the photographs but we’re not ever going to print those. It’s only a very small amount of the time those photos actually become important,” Casey said.

Prosecutors, law enforcement, surviving loved ones, representatives of the estate of the deceased, and research universities would be permitted to obtain autopsy photos, according to the legislation.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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