Allegheny County Jail (Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism photo).
By Jordana Rosenfeld
Allegheny County administrators must release the autopsy report of a man who died in the custody of the Allegheny County Jail in late 2020, according to a new court ruling.
In a 6-1 vote, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court determined that the county had unlawfully denied Pittsburgh-based reporter Brittany Hailer access to an autopsy report and that the Court of Common Pleas had incorrectly ruled in favor of the county in December 2021.
The case originated in December 2020 as a Right to Know Law request in which Hailer, director of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, requested the autopsy report for Daniel Pastorek, a 63 year-old man who died in the Allegheny County Jail in November 2020.
The county denied her request, stating that the autopsy report was exempt under Pennsylvania’s open records law. Hailer says she was initially surprised by this denial.
“When I first asked for the request, it wasn’t like I was necessarily thinking that I was uncovering, like, a true crime situation,” Hailer told Pittsburgh City Paper. “There was like a two sentence story in the [Pittsburgh Post-Gazette] about Mr. Pastorek, and when I asked the county questions, they didn’t really answer them. I was just kind of doing the due diligence of a reporter … and then I started to get systematically blocked by [the county], and I was really shocked at that.”
In other states, the information Hailer requested is readily available at the local courthouse, as in her home state of Maryland, she said. Hailer appealed the county’s decision to the state Office of Open Records.
“The first appeal was, like, me being outraged,” she said.
In March 2021, the open records office reversed the county’s denial and granted Hailer the records. Allegheny County then appealed the decision to the Court of Common Pleas, a move Hailer says she found “pretty alarming.”
“That, then, made me question like, ‘Okay, what’s in this autopsy, then?’” she said.
After the county escalated the matter to Common Pleas Court, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press provided Hailer with free representation through their Local Legal Initiative, support that Hailer says was essential to her fight for the records.
In the Court of Common Pleas, Allegheny County’s lawyers argued that the Pennsylvania Coroner’s Act says that autopsy reports are not public record in Allegheny County because of its designation as a second-class county (a determination based on population numbers).
Further, they argued that a clause in the same law restricts who is allowed to request an autopsy report to those intending “to investigate a claim asserted under a policy of insurance or to determine liability for the death of the deceased,” and that Hailer’s work does not fall under that description.
Hailer’s lawyers argued that the county misread the clause in question, but that, even if their interpretation were correct, Hailer still fits the description of someone seeking “to determine liability for the death of the deceased.”
Judge W. Terrence O’Brien ultimately reversed the OOR decision, siding with Allegheny County. Hailer and her lawyers appealed to the Commonwealth Court.
hen the parties presented the same arguments to Commonwealth Court, the court nearly-unanimously sided with Hailer, finding that O’Brien had “narrowly construed” the relevant sections of the Coroner’s Act and that “there is no language in the RTKL or the Coroner’s Act to suggest that access to certain public records depends on the county class in which the records are located,” according to the majority opinion by Judge Ellen Ceisler.
Allegheny County spokesperson Amie Downs told Pittsburgh City Paper that the county is currently considering whether or not to appeal the decision. The county has 30 days to file an appeal.
“The Law Department is currently reviewing the decision and will assess our options,” she wrote in an email.
Other investigative reporters, such PennLive’s Joshua Vaughn, have said that besides the narrative the jail or police decide to release, autopsy reports are often the only way to find out what happened to people who die in custody.
“Jails are generally opaque institutions filled with some of the most vulnerable people in our society and those with the least access to power, which makes public access to any records concerning the care of those people by the county vitally important,” Vaughn wrote in an email to City Paper.
Vaughn has reported extensively on jail deaths in less populous Pennsylvania counties where coroners’ reports are presumed public record, and says that access to autopsy reports has allowed him to uncover instances of “apparent medical neglect or other wrongdoing that led to the death of people in custody,” including a specific incident in Dauphin County “where corrections officers likely killed a man in what was originally only described as a ‘medical incident’ by the county.”
Vaughn and Hailer have recently received funding from the Pulitzer Center to compile a database of all jail deaths statewide.
Hailer said she is hopeful that, assuming the county decides not to appeal the Commonwealth Court ruling or the ruling survives an appeal, this case could set a precedent for increased transparency across the entire county, noting that this decision might even apply to other situations like police killings or deaths in nursing homes or rehab centers.
“That’s death in dignity for the people that have died, too. They deserve sunlight,” Hailer said.
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