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Tennessee bill would keep most autopsy reports hidden

March 10, 2020 GMT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Autopsy and toxicology reports would remain largely hidden from public scrutiny under legislation that advanced Tuesday in Tennessee’s GOP-dominated Statehouse.

According to the measure, public disclosure of any report compiled by a Tennessee county medical examiner would be banned unless it was subject of a subpoena or court order.

The bill advanced in a House Health subcommittee on Tuesday and still needs to clear the full health panel before it can go to the House floor for approval. A similar bill is making its way in the Senate.

Supporters argue the ban is needed to protect private information, arguing it can be difficult for families when sensitive medical information is made public.

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However, open government advocates counter autopsy reports are valuable tools when keeping government accountable.

“These documents provide accountability and prevent, frankly, cover ups,” said Deborah Fisher, executive director Tennessee Coalition of Open Government. “They’ve been used a lot to make sure that the official account of what happened of something that is of interest to the public is actually what happened.”

A similar measure was introduced in 2018, but ultimately stalled after sponsors acknowledged state law already protects medical records from being distributed if they are not related to the cause of death.

The bill comes as Tennessee has seen a dramatic uptick in inmate executions since August 2018, a procedure classified as homicides in Tennessee and thus require an autopsy unless an inmate objects.

When the state executed 68-year-old Donnie Johnson last year, experts pointed to the publicly-available autopsy and toxicology reports as evidence the inmate suffered during the process — a claim the state has denied.

The autopsy found fluid buildup in Johnson’s lungs, as well as bloody froth in his trachea — leading many to argue Johnson was conscious and aware of his suffocation before the other lethal injection drugs killed him.

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An earlier version of this report had an incorrect spelling of Deborah Fisher’s name.