Login | December 12, 2017

County must turn over girl’s autopsy records to father who killed her

DAN TREVAS
Supreme Court
Public Information Office

Published: December 6, 2017

The Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office must turn over the autopsy records of an infant to her father, who is serving 15 years to life for the murder of the child, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled recently.

A divided Supreme Court determined that a provision of Ohio public records law that requires

incarcerated persons, who request public records, to comply with certain requirements before being granted access to those records does not apply to the request of a deceased’s person’s next of kin to the coroner for records of the deceased person.

Justice Sharon L. Kennedy, the author of the Court’s lead opinion, wrote that the plain language of the statute regarding coroner’s records is clear that the next of kin is entitled to the records. She concluded that if the legislature had intended to prevent the father from getting the records, then the General Assembly has the right to take note of today’s decision and amend the law.

Justice Kennedy’s decision granting Michael Clay the records was joined by Justices Terrence O’Donnell and R. Patrick DeWine.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer wrote that while there is some overlap between the two laws, the medical examiner is clearly required to provide the records to Clay. He noted the results seem “out of step with the General Assembly’s apparent policy decision to limit incarcerated persons’ access to public records.” He, too, invited state lawmakers to consider amending the records laws to address the conflict. Justice O’Donnell joined the opinion to the extent that it encourages the General Assembly to address the issue.

In a dissenting opinion, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor wrote that the lead opinion’s interpretation leads to an absurd result. The intent of the two statutes, when read together, would prevent the father from getting the records because he is imprisoned for the infant’s murder, she concluded. Her dissent was joined by Justices Judith L. French and William M. O’Neill.

Medical Examiner Denies Records Request

In August 2008, Clay’s 8-month-old daughter died as a result of blunt-force impacts to her head. Clay was convicted of murder, felonious assault, and child endangering. He was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. In April 2015, he sent a letter to the medical examiner requesting copies of all X-rays, autopsy photos, the death certificate, and written doctors’ reports pertaining to his deceased daughter.

In support of his records request, Clay cited R.C. 313.10, which governs coroner’s records, and R.C. 149.43, Ohio’s public records act. The medical examiner, which is the coroner’s office in Cuyahoga County, provided some but not all of the records and referred Clay to the city of Cleveland for a copy of the death certificate. A follow-up records request from Clay also was denied.

Father Sues for Records

Clay then sought a writ of mandamus from the Eighth District Court of Appeals requiring the medical examiner turn over all the records he requested. The lawsuit relied solely on R.C. 313.10(C) to support his argument. The medical examiner sought to dismiss the case, arguing that R.C. 149.43 and R.C. 313.10 relate to the same general subject – access to coroner’s records – and must be read together as a whole.

The Eighth District rejected the medical examiner’s request, finding that the two statutes do not relate to the same subject, and ordered the records released to Clay. The medical examiner appealed to the Supreme Court, which agreed to consider the case.

Access to Coroner Records Vary

The Supreme Court’s lead opinion noted that R.C. 313.10 designates that all records of the coroner are public records, but then exempts six types of records from being publicly released. Those include preliminary autopsy and investigative notes, photographs taken by the coroner’s office, suicide notes, medical records, laboratory reports, and records deemed to be “confidential law enforcement investigatory records.”

R.C. 313.10(C)(1) directs the coroner to provide a “copy of the full and complete” records to the next of kin. Clay qualified as his deceased daughter’s next of kin. R.C. 313.10(G)(1) defines full and complete records, and it contains the six items exempted from the public records section.

Justice Kennedy wrote that Clay made his writ request based on R.C. 313.10(C)(1) and invoked his right as next of kin. She wrote the Court has an obligation to examine the language in the statute and, if there is no ambiguity, the Court “must abide by the words employed by the General Assembly.”

The medical examiner urged the Court to interpret R.C. 313.10(C)(1) using the “in pari materia” rule, which means reading a statute in context with other laws relating the same general subject matter. The medical examiner cited R.C. 149.43(B)(8) to deny Clay’s record request, stating: “A coroner’s office is not required to permit a person who is incarcerated pursuant to a criminal conviction to inspect or to obtain a copy of records concerning a death investigation if the person requesting the record is incarcerated for causing the death of the person who is the subject of the record unless the incarcerated person has complied with R.C. 149.43(B)(8), regardless of whether the incarcerated person is the next-of-kin of the decedent.”

The lead opinion stated that the “in pari materia” rule applies only when there is some doubt or ambiguity in the wording of the statute. It noted the medical examiner does not argue that R.C. 313.10(C)(1) is ambiguous.

“And we cannot, after reading the statute and giving the words the legislature chose their plain and ordinary meanings, find that the words of the statute are ambiguous,” the opinion stated.

The medical examiner also maintained that even if Clay were entitled to the records as the next of kin, the office could deny the records under R.C. 149.43(B)(8) because he caused the death of his daughter.

The Court rejected the argument. It ruled the law does not state that the next-of-kin provision must meet the requirements of the public records law. The opinion noted that R.C. 313.10 references the public records law three times, but the provision pertaining to the rights of the next of kin does not contain a reference to the public records law.

Decision Leads to Absurd Result, Examiner Claims

The medical examiner also argued that the failure of the Eighth District to harmonize the two laws leads to the absurd result of allowing an inmate who caused the death of a relative to obtain the autopsy records while all other inmates who caused the death of someone other than their next of kin cannot receive the records without the permission of a trial court.

The lead opinion stated the premise of the “absurd result” principle is that the Court presumes when the legislature passes a law, it does not intend to produce an absurd result. However, the opinion noted that principle applies to the law as written. The medical examiner argued that if the two laws are read together, an absurd consequence results. The Court noted that is “beyond the boundary” of the absurd-result exception, and the Court is bound to interpret R.C. 313.10 as written.

“While we are acutely aware of the fact that Clay has been convicted of and is currently incarcerated for the heinous act of murdering his daughter and that he is using R.C. 313.10(C)(1) to obtain records from the coroner’s office related to the child that he murdered, the plain language of the statute nevertheless grants him access to those records,” the lead opinion stated.

The Court noted that even when dealing with an “unsympathetic party,” the Court must abide by its settled rules and resist the temptation to change the law.

“If after reflection on our decision, the General Assembly finds that its original intention was not accomplished in the words that it chose, then it, and it alone, has the constitutional authority to amend the statute to conform to its intention,” the Court concluded.

Concurrence Distinguishes Two Laws

Justice Fischer in his concurrence noted that the two laws overlap but that does not create a relationship between them. He wrote that R.C. 313.10(C)(1) places a clear duty on the medical examiner to provide the next of kin with the autopsy records, and that the public records act does not relieve the office of that duty.

He explained the public records act provides some discretion to deny autopsy records unless a judge approves the request, and that law applies only when the incarcerated person submits “a public records request.” He wrote that the law requiring that the next of kin receive the full autopsy records does not include a caveat that the request is subject to the limitations placed on inmates by the public records laws.

Justice Fischer concluded that the results of the two laws as written seem out of place because state lawmakers sought to restrict the access to autopsy records from those who committed the murder, and the General Assembly also passed a “slayer statute” that prohibits a person in Clay’s position from “benefitting” from the victim’s estate.

“Moreover, there may be compelling policy arguments against providing the full and complete coroner’s record relating to a child whom the requesting parent has been convicted of murdering,” he wrote.

Dissent Finds Absurd Result

In her dissent, Chief Justice O’Connor argued the lead opinion takes too narrow a view of the absurd result principle by applying it only to the plain language of a single law. She wrote that since 1853, the Court has held that when several acts touching on the same subject lead to absurd consequences, the Court can consider them together.

“Thus, consistent with more than a century of precedent , courts may properly consider, without first finding that statutory language is ambiguous, whether the literal interpretation of a statute leads to an absurd or unreasonable result based on its plain language, the interplay of related statutes, and the General Assembly’s intent,” she wrote.

The dissent maintained that the medical examiner could not read R.C. 313.10 and R.C. 149.43 in isolation because both instruct the office on how to handle records requests. The law allows the next of kin access to the records. But the public records act limits access to the records if the requestor is incarcerated for the murder of the subject of the records. The General Assembly clearly intended to restrict a prisoner’s access to criminal records, the dissent maintained.

The dissent stated that the lead opinion makes a “conclusory statement, with no analysis,” that the plain language of R.C. 313.10 does not lead to an absurd result. But the application of the law is contrary to the obvious intentions of the legislature. The opinion cited testimony presented to lawmakers when they were considering the coroner’s records bill that emphasized the importance of protecting the privacy of the deceased person.

“By murdering his daughter, Clay established that he has no regard for any of her interests or the interests of her other family members, least of all their privacy. He should not receive the benefit of a law designed to protect vulnerable families by keeping sensitive information, including suicide notes and autopsy photos, out of the public record,” the dissent stated.

2016-0387. State ex rel. Clay v. Cuyahoga Cty. Med. Examiner, Slip Opinion No. 2017-Ohio-8714.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

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