William The Coroner’s Forensic Files

Wednesday, 9, February, 2011


Filed under: Forensics,Teaching — williamthecoroner @ 22:09

White Coat had a post about photography in the hospital.  With all the HIPPA hysteria, I’m surprised that hospitals allow photography.  Also, there’s something really…odd about videotaping a birth.  The process is fine and natural, but it is neither clean nor dignified.  At least not when it’s going on.  Be that as it may, White Coat wanted to learn about photography in coroner’s offices.

In Ohio, coroner’s reports and photographs are public records.  The office was funded with tax dollars, and anyone can go and get one of the reports and photographs.  In the pre-digital days, that meant ordering a set of prints, at a cost of processing (in my office it was $15/print).  Because we weren’t in the photo reproduction business, and people with a need for them got the whole set.  Occasionally, family members wanted single prints (one fellow wanted to reproduce a relative’s tattoo), but that was rare.  The office had an unwritten but understood policy to try to keep photographs out of the hands of the morbid and the puriently interested.  If pressed, the photos would be made, but the overriding goal was to make sure the dead were treated with respect.

Photographs are taken for documentation of identity and evidence.  They are used in court, by other expert witnesses, and for the educational mission of the office. There is a long-standing relationship between forensic pathology and public health

Not everyone feels the same way.  When Dale Earnhardt died in Florida, his autopsy photographs were requested by the Orlando Sentinel.   The Earnhardt family was annoyed, and got the Florida state legislature to craft the Earnhardt Family Protection Act, was sponsored by Senator Jim King (R-Jacksonville.   Mr. Earnhardt’s autopsy photos are sealed, and cannot be released without a court order.  ALL autopsy photographs in Florida are sealed unless a there is a court order or the permission of the next of kin for each image.   I believe there is a $10,000/2 year imprisonment penalty per image.  There is no exception for educational use.

As a matter of respect, autopsy photos should not be printed in the newspaper.  It’s disrespectful of the dead, and the public really doesn’t need to see those things with their morning coffee.  I see autopsy photos on a regular basis, and there are some I’d really rather not see.  I think the public health and education missions of a medical examiner/coroner’s office are important.  The Earnhardt Family Protection act means interesting cases cannot get written up in the forensic literature, they cannot be used to teach medical and other professional students, or write forensic textbooks.  The paperwork burden is so onerous that even in permission could be obtained (people are very reasonable, but is it nice to ask the recently bereaved, assuming they exist) keeping the records is expensive and burdensome.  It is so burdensome that smart folks would not teach forensic medicine in Florida.  I don’t believe that consequence was considered or intended.


  1. I was on the jury for a murder trial in the late ’70s. A large black woman had been killed by shotgun blast to the chest. They passed around pictures of the woman on a slab with the wound visible to the members of the jury. After we’d all seen the photos, the bailiff passed them around to the few members of the audience!!

    I saw one of the photos, sans wound, appear the next day in the local litter-box rag—half lidded eyes staring out and all. I never bought another copy from that paper again.

    Comment by Crucis — Thursday, 10, February, 2011 @ 13:32 | Reply

    • You gotta be careful with photos. They can piss off the jury and they quit listening to the person who showed them the photos.

      Comment by williamthecoroner — Thursday, 10, February, 2011 @ 14:17

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