Under California public records laws, an autopsy report is often the only document available to journalists that could shed light on the circumstances surrounding a person’s death. Over the last few years, the San Diego Sheriff’s Department has made it a practice to ask the county medical examiner to seal autopsy reports of people who have died in county jails.
Last month, the Citizen’s Law Enforcement Review Board (CLERB), which investigates deaths in county law enforcement custody, asked the sheriff’s department to stop requesting that autopsy reports be sealed unless it’s absolutely necessary to protect the integrity of an investigation. As CLERB Executive Officer Paul Parker wrote in his policy recommendation, “The ‘sealing’ of a case results in the Medical Examiner’s Office not providing information to the next-of-kin and simply referring them to the [San Diego Sheriff’s Department], which limits the information it provides due to its on-going investigation. These unfortunate circumstances result in next-of-kin receiving no answers for several months, at minimum, and sometimes for a year or longer. In addition, information pertaining to in-custody deaths provided to the public is limited when a case is ‘sealed.’”
On Oct. 29, the SD-SPJ board sent a letter to Sheriff Bill Gore to express our support for CLERB’s policy recommendation and urge him to adopt it for all the reasons mentioned above. Sheriff’s spokeswoman Lt. Amber Baggs responded that in April 2021, Undersheriff Kelly Martinez verbally directed the department’s homicide unit to stop requesting that autopsy reports for in-custody deaths be sealed reports.
Baggs said the policy was in the process being finalized, and did not apply to deaths prior to Martinez’s order. The SD-SPJ board urges the sheriff’s department to make Martinez’s direction official policy as soon as possible and also ensure that autopsy reports for deaths that occurred prior to April 2021 have been unsealed. We also urge the department to be as transparent as possible when it comes to deaths that involve law enforcement personnel and seal reports only when absolutely necessary.