EDITORIAL on Opinion page: Autopsies go underground

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Opinion Editorial

Laura Rearwin WardOjai Valley News publisher

Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, has reintroduced a bill — California AB 268 — to keep all autopsy reports in the hands of families whose relatives have died as a result of a criminal act.

Assemblymember Irwin, like many Ventura County citizens, is pretty trusting of fellow politicians, police, doctors, hospitals, employers, agribusiness, pharmaceutical companies and government agencies. However, it is the job of the news media to question authority on behalf of the people and the public good.

Many of these questions are difficult to ask, especially when an individual does not have the means, status, faculties or knowledge to ask the right questions. Or, an individual may be too close to a situation to see the larger question. Yet, Assemblymember Irwin is proposing that the bereaved will soon be determining what the public should and should not know. The public’s right to know is a powerful tool against corruption, gross misconduct, reckless disregard, or coordinated coverups. With AB 268, the public would be left with trusting and hoping. This is a position the Ojai Valley News finds outrageous.

Caring without sharing

Undoubtedly, this harmful legislation came out of a heartfelt, visceral response to the moving video brought to the Ventura County Board of Supervisors on Dec. 17, 2019. The pain from the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in 2018 cannot be minimized.

Assemblymember Irwin said, “This information can be very traumatizing for the surviving family members of a crime victim.”  

Now officials are using a tragedy to win votes by appearing to care, while removing the public’s rights. Privacy rights are also important, and there exists balancing provisions to consider factors of privacy. There are standing redaction policies to protect individual privacy. Families of victims are not in a good position to consider possible issues of national importance related to a crime that touches their lives.

Misdirection for control

Do not be confused. AB 268 is a loss of public rights disguised as a gesture of concern.

Assemblymember Steve Bennett said in an Op-Ed to the Ojai Valley News on Jan. 17, 2020, that “After the Borderline shooting, requests for autopsy reports soared.”

The California Globe reported that is not accurate:

“Records reviewed by USA Today found that the majority  of the requests made between the time of the shooting and the end of 2019 were for autopsy reports unrelated to the mass shooting. Some of the requests filed for autopsy records related to the shooting have been made at the request of news organizations investigating the death of Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Ron Helus, who was one of two law enforcement officers to respond to the bar moments after Long opened fire. Investigators initially said Helus was killed by the gunman. Helus was shot more than five times by the gunman, but the Sheriff’s Department later revealed that a sixth bullet fired by a California Highway Patrol officer went astray, struck Helus in a ‘vital organ” and claimed the deputy’s life.’ 

Judge above the Law

Last month, Ventura Superior Court Judge Henry Walsh took the law into his own hands when he barred the release of autopsy reports of 11 victims of the Borderline shooting. He stated that pending legislation could keep them confidential. There have been more than 2,400 bills introduced this year. If judges are going to rule in advance of any potential laws, they are creating laws rather than following them.

The authorities and perpetrators will be further protected from the eyes of the public if AB 268 passes.

Read the legislation and hold Assemblymember Bennett accountable for his promise made in the Ojai Valley News on Jan. 17, 2020: “We are confident that state legislation can be created that will protect the public’s need to know valuable information about causes of death while protecting a family’s medical privacy.” In terms of this promise, AB 268 is a dead failure.

Join the Ojai Valley News, the Ventura County Star, the Los Angeles Times, and the California News Publishers Association and speak out. Urge your representative to vote no on AB 268, which is a miguided effort to bury autopsies from the public eye.

Read the bill:

Reach out:

Steve Bennett: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.;


Jacqui Irwin: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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