A judge on Friday ordered the Las Vegas Review-Journal and other media outlets to destroy a copy of the autopsy report of an Oct. 1 mass shooting victim, siding with the privacy concerns of the victim’s widow. The report was one of 58 that a different judge ordered the Clark County coroner’s office to release last week to the newspaper in the wake of another lawsuit, which argued that the autopsies of the Las Vegas mass shooting victims should be public. That judge also ordered the coroner’s office to release gunman Stephen Paddock’s autopsy, which has not been handed over. Friday’s ruling pertained only to the autopsy report for Charleston Hartfield, a Las Vegas police officer who was killed during the mass shooting. He was the husband of the plaintiff, Veronica Hartfield. The ruling by District Judge Richard Scotti also barred the newspaper from further reporting on Hartfield’s autopsy details. Review-Journal Editor in Chief Keith Moyer said the company would file an emergency appeal of Scotti’s decision to the Nevada Supreme Court. “These reports are important public records. Previous rulings have held that these records must be accessible to the public,” Moyer said. Scotti’s decision came after more than two hours of arguments, during which attorney Anthony Sgro argued that the widow’s privacy concerns far outweighed the public’s need to know. He also said the Review-Journal only sought the records in the first place “to sell newspapers.” The newspaper’s attorney, Maggie McLetchie, said Sgro’s comments were “strange criticism.” She argued that despite the anguish Hartfield’s widow and other victims’ families have experienced in the wake of the Oct. 1 massacre, the First Amendment still applied. After the judge’s ruling, McLetchie reiterated that the autopsy reports were partially redacted, and that the Review-Journal has no way of knowing which report was Hartfield’s. Scotti said the newspaper can either hand over all 58 autopsy reports to the coroner’s office and receive 57 back, or allow the office’s staff to come to the newsroom and select the document to destroy. “That’s a preposterous demand of a free press,” Moyer said. “This isn’t North Korea. Government officials cannot enter a newsroom and forcibly remove public records, even under a so-called court order.” Contrary to the assertion that the Review-Journal is seeking the information exclusively to sell newspapers, the editor in chief said, the Review-Journal is investigating the police and medical response to the mass shooting. “Autopsy reports are essential to uncovering potential shortcomings in the response and the Oct. 1 investigation, holding institutions accountable for those failures and ensuring authorities can take steps to make sure they aren’t repeated during future tragedies,” Moyer said. “Autopsy reports also help the public evaluate the competency of the coroner’s office, which is certainly in question.”
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