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Autopsy records released to Review-Journal after years of litigation

Updated December 31, 2020 - 2:37 pm

After nearly four years of litigation and two Nevada Supreme Court orders, Clark County released 653 unredacted child autopsies to the Review-Journal on Thursday as part of an investigation into the county’s child protection division.

The release came a day after deadline, but county attorneys said Thursday they plan to withdraw their requested appeal of District Judge Jim Crockett’s ruling, which required the documents to be released without redaction.

“It’s shameful that it took this many court defeats to get Clark County to provide these important public records, but we’re relieved to finally have them in our possession,” Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said. “Let this wastefully long dispute stand as a case study for why severe civil penalties should be imposed on agencies that refuse to comply with the Nevada Public Records Act.”

In a review of the newly released documents, the Review-Journal will work to determine whether child protection workers missed any abuse history prior to each child’s death and whether the records show any failings in the autopsy process.

Benjamin Zensen Lipman, the Review-Journal’s general counsel, said the records were long overdue.

“It is a shame it took so long, but we are glad we will finally have the opportunity to use these important public documents to ensure that vulnerable children in our region are getting the protection they deserve,” he said. “Our governments must be accountable for the people they serve, and this is a long overdue first step.”

Richard Karpel, executive director of the Nevada Press Association, said the lengthy legal battle that led to Thursday’s release also emphasizes that the state’s public records laws do not go far enough to ensure access to the average resident.

“It’s fabulous the Review-Journal has the will and resources to fight these battles, but what about everyone else?” he said. “The fact that Clark County spent four years and over $80,000 to keep these autopsy reports hidden only begins to suggest the scale of its government-secrecy problem.”

County spokesman Erik Pappa declined to comment.

The Thursday release comes after the Nevada Supreme Court twice this week refused to allow the county to withhold the records beyond Wednesday’s deadline, even as county officials argued that releasing the records would force families to relive the deaths of their children and expose private medical information. County attorneys had not provided any evidence of such concerns during the court process.

In July 2017, the Review-Journal filed a lawsuit against the coroner’s office seeking the release of the autopsies as part of its investigation. 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 record but sent the case back to Crockett to determine whether any private medical information in the requested documents needed to be redacted.

Crockett offered to personally review the autopsies to see if there were valid privacy concerns — until he discovered that the coroner’s office hadn’t bothered to redact most of the autopsies. At that point, he blasted the county for dragging its heels and set the Wednesday deadline.

“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 responded with another appeal request, and Clark County commissioners, except Commissioner Tick Segerblom, voted in December to approve more funding for the effort.

Review-Journal attorneys were prepared to ask the court to hold the coroner’s office in contempt if officials refused to produce the records as ordered, but county attorneys early Thursday provided the documents on a flash drive.

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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