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Legal battle begins over cause of Zachery Tims' death

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The New York attorney for Zachery Tims' mother said Tuesday the family is challenging the legal right of the New York City Medical Examiner's Office to release the cause of death of the Apopka preacher.

Ricardo Oquendo, who represents Madeline Tims in the lawsuit filed Friday, said autopsy and toxicology reports are not public record in New York City and their findings should not be either.

"We are challenging what has never been challenged before, which is the medical examiner's practice of disclosing manner and cause of death," Oquendo said. "The cause of death of any person who may be subject to an autopsy or toxicology should not be made public."

The New York Medical Examiner's Office issued a statement from the city's legal department saying that releasing the cause of death is not the same as releasing a toxicology report or autopsy.

"The Medical Examiner's Office does not release autopsy reports to the public. Rather, it discloses the cause and manner of death upon public inquiry," said New York City Attorney Ave Maria Brennan. "The City feels it's important to make this information available to the public. The Law Department will defend this challenge to the medical examiner's ability to do so."

Tims, 42, pastor of New Destiny Christian Church in Apopka, was found dead in a New York City hotel room on Aug. 12. The cause of death was not determined, prompting the autopsy and toxicology tests by the Medical Examiner's Office.

Tim's ex-wife, Riva Tims, is not a party to the lawsuit. A hearing before a Manhattan State Supreme Court justice is set for Nov. 23.

Oquendo is arguing that the medical examiner's autopsy and toxicology reports are medical records and should not be released without permission from the family. He also said that death certificates of people whose deaths do not fall under the Medical Examiner's Office are not public record — so those investigated by the medical examiner should not be either.

"If he [Tims] had just died of natural causes — which might be indicated in the medical examiner's report — that is not freely disclosable to the public so why should a medical examiner's death certificate be?" he said.

Dave Schulz, a New York media law attorney, said the public has a right to know the cause of death.

"If they determine the cause of death, I don't know how [Tims' family] can keep it secret," Schulz said. "They have to show some privacy concern that outweighs the public's right to know."

jkunerth@tribune.com or 407-420-5392

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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