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Another appeal in 3-year fight to get juvenile autopsies released

Updated December 15, 2020 - 12:57 pm

Clark County Commissioners approved another appeal Tuesday by the coroner’s office over the release of juvenile autopsies despite a district judge ruling that the records must be handed over by Dec. 30.

The Review-Journal sued in 2017 to get access to juvenile autopsies as part of an investigation into failures by child protection workers to remove children before they died of neglect or abuse.

District Judge Jim Crockett and the Nevada Supreme Court previously ruled autopsies are public records and should be released.

Commissioner Tick Segerblom, the only commissioner to vote against another appeal Tuesday, urged his fellow commissioners to stop wasting money.

“We’ve been through the courts and they said turn them over,” he said. “I don’t think we should spend more money on this appeal.”

In February, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled autopsies are public records but directed the district court to determine whether there is any private medical information that needs to be redacted.

District Judge Jim Crockett offered to review the autopsies in chambers until he realized the coroner’s office hadn’t redacted most of the autopsies the Review-Journal requested. Crockett then blasted the coroner’s office for “blatant and flagrant attempt to obstruct” and ordered the autopsies released by Dec. 30. He refused to grant a stay for an appeal.

Robert Warhola, a deputy district attorney, told commissioners Tuesday that they believe Crockett did not apply the balancing test set up by the Supreme Court to determine what to redact from the records, and that is the focus of the appeal.

But Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said Tuesday that the continued fight shows that the county is concealing damaging records.

“Clark County is hiding one helluva story,” he said. “There’s no other reason to engage in such an expensive, doomed appeal, even after a judge eviscerates all involved for flagrantly violating the Public Records Act. I am more convinced than ever that these records will expose devastating failures of our most vulnerable children on a sickening scale.”

Cook also criticized spending money on an appeal when COVID has dried up revenue for vital services.

“Taxpayers, take note: No matter how much you’re struggling, no matter the economic hardships you are enduring, and no matter how far tax collections plunge during this pandemic, Clark County commissioners will always, always find money to hide their greatest failures from you,” he said.

In February’s ruling, the court established a two-part test to determine what can be redacted from the autopsies. The government has to show there is a “nontrivial” privacy interest and the requester must prove there is significant public interest advanced by the release of the documents.

Before the vote, Ben Lipman, vice president of legal affairs and general counsel for the Review-Journal, urged commissioners to end appeals that have cost taxpayers $80,000 and will cost more after the county is forced to pay the news organization’s legal fees.

“We think the time has come for all of this to end,” he said.

Nevada Policy Research Institute, Nevada Press Association and the Nevada Open Government Coalition urged the commissioners to stop appeals in the case.

Last week, Crockett gave a lengthy speech in court about the importance of public servants acting in the public good and the coroner’s failure to abide by those principals.

“Even though the Coroner’s Office is … under no obligation to prevent the death of children, it has the ability to assist in that goal,” Crockett said last week in court. “Wouldn’t it want to? Rather than proactively assisting or even just passively participating in the efforts to assemble information that could in the future be instrumental in protecting children and preventing them from being tortured, abused, and murdered in the future, the Coroner’s Office has dragged its heels and been brought before the Court kicking and screaming over objections that are frivolous, featherweight, and fallacious.”

Read Crockett’s full statement in court last week.

The county must get a stay from the Nevada Supreme Court before Dec. 30 or face possible contempt charges for failing to release the records.

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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