NEW ORELANS (CN) — The results on an autopsy performed on a Baton Rouge, Louisiana man following his shooting death at the hands of police will remain sealed, a federal judge ruled Thursday.
However, the judge unseal the motion that led to the decision, explaining he was doing so because the “coroner is being threatened with litigation by those who do not believe his stated reasons for withholding the report,” Chief U.S. District Judge Brian Jackson’s order said.Sterling, a 37-year-old black man, was fatally shot by police early in the morning of July 5 outside of a convenience store in Baton Rouge.
His death was captured on video and posted online, causing a rash of public outrage and it set off protests against police brutality locally and across the country.
Preliminary results from Sterling’s autopsy were released immediately after his body was examined. The results found Sterling died of multiple gunshot wounds to his chest and back. But the federal government moved to have the final results, a report that generally comes later than the preliminary report, sealed.
“The United States previously filed a sealed motion seeking to have the Court issue a sealed order temporarily enjoining the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office (“the Coroner”) from releasing the autopsy report of Alton Sterling in order to protect the integrity of the United States’ ongoing criminal investigation,” Judge Jackson wrote in his one-page order Thursday. (Parentheses in original.)
“The Court granted the United States’ motion, and the Coroner now stands prohibited from not only releasing a copy of the autopsy report, but also from releasing a copy of the order enjoining the autopsy report’s release,” the order goes on, and continues: “Unfortunately, the Coroner is being threatened with litigation by those who do not believe his stated reasons for withholding the report. The United States therefore moves to have the Court unseal its previous order.”The coroner, Dr. William “Beau” Clark, said during a phone interview with Courthouse News Friday that “there have been threats of litigation surrounding” all of the recent shooting events in Baton Rouge — “Alton Sterling, Gavin Long [a 29-year-old from Kansas City who traveled to Baton Rouge after Sterling’s death and fatally shot three Baton Rouge-area police officers], all of it,” Clark said.
While the order was still sealed, Clarks said, legally he wasn’t even supposed to mention there was an order at all, which complicated things when someone called asking for the report.
“This is not the norm in the world of coroners at all,” Clark said. “The autopsy is usually public record.”Clark said that in the five years he has been coroner, he hasn’t once been ordered to keep an autopsy private.
Before the autopsy was sealed, Clark did release a preliminary findings report on Alton Sterling, as is ordinary protocol he said. The preliminary report said “Multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and back.” The final report that he is prevented now from disclosing publicly would include the toxicology and radiology findings as well.Edmond Jordan, an attorney who represents Alton Sterling’s family, said Thursday that in his opinion the autopsy should remain sealed.
“When something is part of a criminal investigation, it doesn’t fall under the public records law exception,” Jordan said.
“If they want to try this case in the media — I don’t think that’s appropriate — but if we’re going to do that,” Jordan said, “then let’s either seal all records, or make all of them available.”
The records Jordan meant would include not just the autopsy but the original 911 call to police (which still has not been released), the video surveillance video from the Triple S Food Mart where Sterling was killed (still not yet released), and all other videos or reports related to Sterling’s death.
Jordan said that once the FBI has completed its investigation into Sterling’s death and the U.S. government has decided whether or not to bring federal charges, the state still may decide to bring charges against the police officer who shot Sterling, and if it did, records related to Sterling’s death may remain sealed a long time yet.
The office of U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Louisiana J. Walter Green did not immediately reply to a voicemail Friday requesting comment.A clerk in Judge Jackson’s court told Courthouse News Friday that the judge wasn’t going to make any additional statements other than what is stated in the order.
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