Release of Anderson autopsy report causes concern

In today's story about the police custody death of Anthony Anderson, there's a reference to some police and prosecutors being irked about the release of Anderson's autopsy report to his family. At least one reader on Twitter wanted to know more about this.

Detailed information about Anderson's injuries is key to building the investigation. For detectives working a controversial case and trying to piece together witness accounts  - some that may be wildly inaccurate or fabricated - holding back key information is a crucial tactic.

An example: in a 2006 murder case in Anne Arundel County, a witness being interviewed by police asserted that he saw a victim get shot by a suspect with a chrome handgun - but the autopsy, detectives knew, showed the victim was stabbed. That witness, his credibility shot, later emerged as an accomplice.

The cause of death of missing North Carolina teenager Phylicia Barnes was withheld until someone was charged in her case; Officer William Torbit's autopsy wasn't made public for a year until prosecutors determined no one would be charged.

"It's way too early to give that much detail," said Sharon A.H. May, a defense attorney and former deputy Baltimore State's Attorney who is not involved in the Anderson case. "It's better until everything has been looked into and decisions have been made about what you're going to do before you put it out on the street. If there's going to be a prosecution, that needs to be done in the courtroom."

Under state law in Maryland, while a death is under investigation the autopsy report is not a public document and is not given out even to family.

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said the decision to release the report was handed down by Commissioner Anthony W. Batts "in the interest of transparency." Col. Jesse Oden, the chief of criminal investigations, hand-delivered it to the family. 

Not surprisingly, Anderson's family appreciated the gesture, saying the findings validated their claims that Anderson died at the hands of police and not the initial assertion that he choked while trying to swallow drugs.

But Anderson's injuries also seemed to contrast with accounts from some family members, who said they saw Anderson dropped on his head from a significant height. Anderson's injuries are to his left side and torso, not his head or neck.

Family members also weren't given the supplemental toxicology report, which showed the presence of morphine - at a news conference where supporters distributed copies of the autopsy to the media, the family said no drugs were found in Anderson's system.

Some readers asked whether the release of an autopsy in a homicide case is more common on the West Coast, where Batts spent his entire policing career. I called two coroner's offices there for some guidance on policies there. 

According to Ed Winter, the assistant chief of investigations for the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, an autopsy report is disclosable once the coroner's office has completed its investigation - unless police or the District Attorney place a "security hold" on it. 

"We do have some chiefs out here that won't put a security hold on an officer-involved shooting or custody death; they'll talk with their legal staff, their attorneys," Winter said. "If we give a copy to the police department and the district attorney doesn't want it released, that's between the D.A. and the P.D."

Occasionally, a document will become public that investigators weren't ready to see released. "We remind them, if there's no security hold, once it's closed, it's a matter of public record."

In nearby San Bernardino County, spokeswoman Sandy Fatland said an autopsy won't be released to anyone other than the investigating agencies. "We would not release a homicide report to anyone other than the agencies involved." 

What happens when family members demand information on a relative's death? "We'll sit down with them. It happened just the other day. But they need to know that there's things only the killer and your family member could possibly know, so no, we can't. It would harm our investigation."

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