Pennsylvania is poised to take a big step backward when it comes to transparency and openness. On Friday, the state Senate added Senate Bill 961, which would eliminate public access to virtually all coroner records, to a set of bills they plan to vote out of the Senate Local Government Committee today.
The Pennsylvania Newspaper Association, as well as this newspaper and many others, strongly oppose this piece of legislation. Instead of a full report on the cause of a suspicious death released in a timely fashion, it would require only the release of the name, cause and manner of death and even then it would become public only 30 days after the calendar year in which a death occurs.
The strength of the coroner's office is the important role it plays for the public and the criminal justice system by providing an independent and timely investigation into deaths of questionable circumstances such as homicides, suicides, accidental and often sudden and unexplained deaths.
To throw a cloud of secrecy over this important work does a huge disservice to the public.
Here's a firsthand example of what access to these records can do:
Patty Carbone, Steven Crawford, Barry Laughman and David Gladden all were destined to die in prison despite their pleas of innocence. They had already spent a combined 66 years behind bars before the late Patriot-News reporter Pete Shellem was able to show that each was unjustly convicted of murder. They are all now free.
It was access to coroner reports and records that were the basis of his reporting. It is likely that each would still be in prison had Shellem not had access to the information that would be restricted by Senate Bill 961.
Shellem's work is just one of many examples of why public access to coroner's records is so important.
It also is equally important to families and others who find themselves disputing a coroner's report and want more than just the name, cause and manner of death, which is all that will be required from a coroner if the bill becomes law.
The Pennsylvania Coroner's Association pushed hard for this legislation for many years, often citing the sensitivity to family members' feelings at the time of a death.
There is no question that everyone involved in the process of someone's death, including the media, needs to be sensitive.
But the coroner's job is bigger than that. It is about representing the interests of the public in a timely and impartial way. There is no other institution, other than when cases get into the court system, that can look out for the public when it comes to suspicious deaths.