The House Health Subcommittee approved a bill last Wednesday that would make autopsy investigation reports and findings conducted by the state and county medical examiners confidential.
Speaking to the subcommittee, Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan, medical examiner for Knox and Anderson counties, said having the findings of forensic autopsies available to the public is difficult for family members and sometimes means that familial conditions, such as dementia, could become public.
The bill seeks to make confidential “the records of the results of investigation, of post-mortem examinations, of the findings of autopsies and toxicological laboratory examinations, including certified reports of the toxicological laboratory examinations performed by the testing laboratory.”
Mileusnic-Polchan, who also is current chair of the Tennessee medical examiner advisory council, said the case that started her quest to close the records related to the death of a 5-day-old baby who had a herpes infection passed along from the mother.
The mother, she said, had a second chance in her life and “knowing that she, in her own words, ‘killed the baby,’” was devastating, along with knowing that her own herpes condition would be available for the public to know.
State Rep. Eddie Smith, R-Knoxville, said the bill was brought to him by Mileusnic-Polchan. State Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, who is the medical examiner for Lewis County, is the Senate sponsor.
Mileusnic-Polchin was joined Wednesday by John Lott with the Knox County Regional Forensics Center and state Chief Medical Examiner Julia Goodin, who also testified to the House Health Subcommittee in favor of the bill.
Lott said the proposed change would mean the autopsy results and findings would only be released “to those who need them for official purposes.”
State law allows a county medical examiner to perform an autopsy “on the body of any person in a case involving a homicide, suspected homicide, a suicide, a violent, unnatural or suspicious death, an unexpected apparent natural death in an adult, sudden unexpected infant and child deaths, deaths believed to represent a threat to public health or safety and executed prisoners.”
Under the proposed bill change, the results of the government autopsies in all those situations would be confidential.
The original bill required the commissioner of health to provide a report on suggested changes to the “Post-Mortem Act.” But the bill was only a “caption” bill, meaning the real language would be added later as an amendment.
In introducing the amendment to the bill, Smith said that the proposal would close the information because it could hurt living relatives by having medical history public.
Not everything in forensics autopsy records done by the government are public now. The current law states that “[m]edical records of deceased persons, law enforcement investigative reports, and photographs, video and other images of deceased persons shall not be public records.”
But to Mileusnic-Polchan, that is not enough.
She said the forensics autopsies done under the state law for public health and public safety reasons should be treated the same as a hospital autopsies – as privileged information.
She also said brutal homicides, suicides and death of elderly, including cases of abuse and neglect, as painful enough for families without having that information “out there.”
She specifically mentioned the death of a young couple in Knoxville about a decade ago that was very brutal. She noted how hard it was for the family to endure the criminal trials in which how they died became public. “Why does it need to be out there in the public?” she asked.
Goodin, the state medical examiner, told the subcommittee that she supported the bill. “An autopsy is a medical procedure and therefore is a medical record, and I agree with this bill.”
By Debra Fisher
Tennessee Coalition for Open Government