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Tuesday, July 16, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Body Armor Details May Be Kept Close to the Vest

WASHINGTON (CN) - A federal judge won't force the Pentagon to release autopsy information of U.S. soldiers killed in action to a former Marine doing research on the effectiveness of body armor.

Roger Charles has been involved in a legal battle with the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology and the U.S. Department of Defense over such records for more than four years, spanning the courtrooms of multiple federal judges.

According to U.S. District Judge Ketanji Jackson, Charles is a journalist and former Marine Corps officer researching the effectiveness of the body armor that the Pentagon issues to military personnel in combat zones.

He's been trying to get the government to release autopsy and medical records for soldiers killed in combat, but the agencies have successfully withheld documents under FOIA exemptions.

"Consequently, by 2013, only one narrow issue remained in the case: whether defendants, who had invoked FOIA Exemption 5 to withhold redacted 'preliminary' autopsy reports in their entirety, have adequately established that the factual information that such records contain is not reasonably segregable from the exempted material," Jackson writes.

The judge ruled that "defendants have sufficiently demonstrated that the factual material contained in the preliminary autopsy reports is not reasonably segregable," granting the government's motion for summary judgment.

According to the ruling, Charles specifically wants documents that "analyze fatal wounds from bullets that were inflicted on military service members wearing body armor in Iraq and Afghanistan between January 1, 2006, and December 31, 2007, and analyze the relationship between personal body armor and lethal torso injuries sustained by such service members."

But federal judges, for the most part, refuse to order the release of the requested information, ruling that autopsy reports are protected by inter-agency and intra-agency memorandum and medical records exemptions to federal law.

Earlier this year, the judge ruled that the Pentagon failed to properly invoke Exemption 6 - protecting the government from releasing medical records - when refusing to release 42 preliminary autopsy reports responsive to Charles' modified request, but the matter is under appeal.

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