Court Shields Autopsy Reports of Slain Ohio Family Members

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) – The Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday pleaded patience with newspapers asking to view full autopsy reports on eight people found murdered in a rural part of the state, ruling that an ongoing homicide investigation overshadows the public’s interest in the closely watched case.

Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor ruled in a divided opinion that public records law does not support the Cincinnati Enquirer, Columbus Dispatch and reporter Holly Zachariah’s push for the release of the autopsies from the Pike County Coroner’s Office and Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine.

Because the investigation into the deaths of the Rhoden family members is ongoing, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 4-3 to reject the papers’ request, finding the records currently exempt from disclosure.

“In order that justice might be delivered to all, patience may be required of some,” O’Connor wrote for the majority.

DeWine’s spokesman Dan Tierney said that Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation is continuing to investigate the case.

“The Ohio attorney general’s office is pleased that the Ohio Supreme Court agreed with our arguments that the county coroner and our office had properly redacted the autopsy reports prior to release,” Tierney said during a phone interview.

Cincinnati Enquirer attorney John Greiner said he is disappointed by the court’s ruling and the paper is considering its legal options.

“The potential consequence of it is that much more material will be able to be moved into the confidential law enforcement exception than was ever intended. That’s what we see as the potential consequence of this ruling,” Greiner said in a phone interview.

The Columbus Dispatch’s law firm, Zeiger, Tigges & Little, referred Courthouse News to Dispatch editor Alan Miller, who did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for an interview.

But Miller said in a Dispatch story that autopsy records are typically available to the public.

“It’s clear some members of the court performed legal gymnastics to close access to them,” Miller said.

Eight people in the Rhoden family were found shot to death in four homes in rural southern Ohio in April 2016.

The newspapers asked Pike County Coroner David Kessler if they could inspect the autopsy reports, but Kessler denied their request in July 2016, claiming the reports are confidential law enforcement records.

Two months later, Kessler and Attorney General DeWine released redacted copies of the autopsy reports. By that time, the Enquirer and Dispatch had sued the coroner’s office in the Ohio Supreme Court.

The Dispatch later moved to inspect the records again when they were submitted under seal to the court, which rejected the request.

Both papers argue the denial of their requests violates state public records law. Prosecutors said that the redacted information is vital to its continuing investigation. Kessler raised concerns about the impact of publication of the full reports would have on grieving family members.

In her ruling, O’Connor said the case was of “great public importance,” revolving around the question of whether the public has a right to review the autopsy reports. But the judge was not persuaded by the newspapers’ arguments to support their case. The coroner and law enforcement had correctly opted to withhold information that is pertinent to an ongoing investigation, O’Connor said.

“The media and the public will always desire to know immediately the goings-on of a criminal investigation before the investigation has traveled its due course, but unfortunately, and in rare cases, time is required so that the path leading to a suspect is followed with certainty before an accused is brought forward,” O’Connor wrote. “The purposes of the Public Records Act can and should be served without jeopardizing the public’s right to confidence in criminal investigations and our legal system. All criminal investigations must be carried out thoroughly, unfettered by collateral interests.”

The murders prompted a large-scale investigation. Authorities have linked marijuana growing and cockfighting operations to the Rhoden family.

The victims, including a 16-year-old boy, were killed execution style. A woman was murdered while she was sleeping next to her baby, who was not harmed.

The redacted autopsy reports showed the victims were found in their homes with multiple gunshot wounds. The reports revealed gunshot wounds to 41-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr.’s head, upper body and torso.

The court’s ruling said the reports included the causes of death for each family member and other information about their injuries. Facts that would shed more light on the path and trajectory of the bullets, identifying characteristics like scars or tattoos, and toxicology findings were left out of the redacted versions, according to O’Connor.

Justice Sharon Kennedy departed from the majority and said she would have allowed the newspapers, who filed separate lawsuits, to inspect the reports. She noted several inconsistencies in the way authorities had obscured information. Descriptions of scars and tattoos were available in some autopsy reports but were redacted in others, she said.

“The autopsy reports are devoid of the coroner’s theories as to who perpetrated the killings,” Kennedy added.

Justice Patrick Fischer also wrote a dissenting opinion. Both Kennedy and Fischer were joined in their dissents by Justice Terrence O’Donnell.

According to the attorney general’s office, the victims of the shootings were Hannah Gilley, 20; Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16; Clarence Rhoden, 20; Dana Rhoden, 37; Gary Rhoden, 38; Hanna Rhoden, 19; and Kenneth Rhoden, 44.

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