Judge edits RJ

A Nevada state court judge has overruled other Nevada state court judges, teeing up a fight over press freedoms.

Clark County coroner John Fudenberg withheld the results of the autopsies of victims of the Oct. 1 mass concert shooting after District Judge Jim Crockett ruled they were public records and could not be withheld from the public.

Crockett—on Jan 11—ordered Fudenberg to pay $32,000 to the Las Vegas Review-Journal in legal costs the newspaper incurred going to court to obtain the records.

On Jan. 30, District Judge Timothy Williams ordered that the autopsy results of Stephen Paddock—assumed killer in the concert killings that left 58 people dead—be released, followed by the autopsy results of all victims, with their names removed from the autopsy reports.

On Feb. 1, the coroner started releasing the autopsy reports on the victims after information was redacted that would allow the reports to be matched to individual victims.

On Feb. 9 Paddock’s report, showing he was on anti-anxiety medication at the time of the attack, was finally released.

Then, later that day, responding to a request from the widow of one of the victims, District Judge Richard Scotti ordered the Las Vegas Review-Journal and the Associated Press to destroy the autopsy report of victim Charleston Hartfield and not report on Hartfield. The order was issued in the interest of Veronica Hartfield. Since identifying information in the released autopsy reports had been redacted, the only way to comply with the court order was to destroy all the victim autopsy reports.

The unusual judicial order attracted wide attention. The Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press in D.C. and the Nevada Press Association joined the Review-Journal in fighting Scotti’s order in the Nevada Supreme Court. The order not to produce news coverage of Hartfield was regarded as relatively easy to overturn, since prior restraint in the United States carries a heavy burden in court and is seldom attempted. The other part of the order—the destruction of the autopsy reports—was defeated in part when the Huffington Post reported the autopsy information from every victim’s report. It is not known when the state Supreme Court will act.

Autopsy reports, from Marilyn Monroe to everyday deaths, have normally been treated as public records and used for a variety of reasons, including changes in public policy.

In a separate but related dispute, District Judge Elissa Cadish refused a Las Vegas Metropolitan Police request that she penalize the Review-Journal for publishing the name of Douglas Haig after Metro released it. Haig is reportedly a “person of interest” who could face federal charges in connection with the mass concert shooting. After Metro released the name, the RJ checked with Sheriff Joe Lombardo, who signed off on the newspaper publishing the name. Cadish rejected the Metro request.