A Wilson Times Co. publication · Serving Southern Nash County Since 1947

Done in the dark, Senate Bill 168 should be undone in sunlight

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Lawmakers, aides and members of the public and press begin filing into the North Carolina Senate chamber before new senators take the oath of office as the General Assembly opens its 2017 session.
Lawmakers, aides and members of the public and press begin filing into the North Carolina Senate chamber before new senators take the oath of office as the General Assembly opens its 2017 session.
Corey Friedman | Times file photo

Everyone from Ice Cube to Nash County Sheriff Keith Stone thinks state Senate Bill 168 is a bad idea.

How apropos that the worst attack on state sunshine laws in recent memory came in the dark of night.

The N.C. Senate and House passed the bill at 2:30 a.m. June 27, establishing that death records are confidential and not available for public review without family authorization. The bill sits on Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk. Hopefully, he doesn’t sign it into law.

Section 2.5 of the bill makes death investigation information confidential and places control of such records in local authorities’ hands. In effect, autopsies would no longer be public information that anyone can obtain.

This Gestapo-esque legislation restricts the public at large, the news media, nonprofit organizations and grassroots advocacy groups.

For the last two decades, I’ve used autopsies in my daily reporting, and especially in writing about unsolved murders, missing people and unidentified bodies.

I’m especially proud of work I accomplished along with other reporters at The Daily News in Jacksonville in which we spent hours and hours days on end pouring over death certificates and autopsy reports to show how many people died of cancer while a Marine, sailor or dependent at Camp Lejeune from the 1950s to the early 1980s while the military dumped fuel oil, battery acid and other toxins into the ground near drinking water sources. 

Those records told the devastating stories of a young Marine wife who lost three daughters born prematurely in the 1960s; the 13 mothers on one street in one year who lost all their babies to bad water aboard the base in 1953; and a family who in the 1970s watched helplessly as their pet rabbit, then cat, then dog, then 7-year-old daughter died — all while the government told them everything was fine with the carcinogenic water they used to drink, bathe and cook.

Had this law been in effect in 2010, those revealing newspaper reports would have been impossible to write, would have never landed on the desk of President Barack Obama and wouldn’t have helped tip the scales toward federal legislation that provided health care to the 1 million people affected by the toxins seeping into their public water system.

Today, I use autopsies and other such records in my efforts to help law enforcement resolve cases from years past. I once reported on the discovery of a skeleton based solely on an autopsy report — no other information existed in the decades-old case. After reading the article, a local law enforcement official told me he’d never heard of the skeleton and would begin an investigation.

Using public records, especially autopsies, The Wilson Times reported on a dozen unsolved migrant deaths in the area during the 1970s and ‘80s. As result, the Johnston County Sheriff’s Office is looking at some of those cases again. Obviously, such work wouldn’t be possible if autopsies weren’t available.

With the changes wrought by SB 168, information about a woman who is brutally raped and killed will not be available to the public, leaving a terrible and dangerous loophole for opportunistic predators, said Crystal Cavalier Keck, president of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in North Carolina, which  monitors, records and pursues justice for slain women across the state.

Public records like autopsies and death certificates are at the heart of my work. Having such records is a benefit to everyone.

When authorities found the body of a 52-year-old Bailey man on a dead-end road in Wilson County in July 2016, they wouldn’t say how he died. A quick and easy search for his death certificate at the county register of deeds office revealed he’d been shot multiple times in a homicide, information the public had a right to know. That’s why death certificates and autopsies are public records.

In light of the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality and injustice, Section 2.5 of SB 168 looks to me like a way to protect law enforcement by preventing the public from knowing how someone died — especially if the death occurred in police custody. 

Rapper Ice Cube tweeted about the bill on Monday. “This is so dirty,” Ice Cube said. “You know most crooks do their crimes after midnight. Governor Cooper do not sign this into law. Don’t give more cover for Killer Cops.”

Under this bill, local authorities could release information as they see fit, but would the public believe or accept such information coming from law enforcement who may have been involved in the incident?

When Nash County sheriff’s deputies shot and killed a 28-year-old man in his own driveway in February 2019, the family and public had a lot of questions, especially when District Attorney Robert Evans announced the deputies involved wouldn’t face charges.

The public’s questions were answered — for the most part — with the release of the man’s autopsy, not by local officials, but by The Wilson Times after our crime reporter Olivia Neeley requested it from the state medical examiner. 

The autopsy revealed that swirling around in the man’s system at the time of his death was alcohol, cocaine, caffeine, cough syrup, a sleeping aid, nicotine, the veterinary drug levamisole and other substances that couldn’t be identified in his toxicology report. 

The man’s blood-alcohol content was twice the legal driving limit in North Carolina and in his pocket he had a “clear plastic baggie containing a white powdery substance,” according to the autopsy.

This information, while painful for the family, is important for the general public to know. Anyone with a modicum of common sense should be able to see that an armed man with such a potent cocktail of booze and drugs pumping through his system would likely have been the threat law enforcement said he appeared to be. But would this information mean as much if released by Sheriff Stone instead of the newspaper as provided by a separate agency?

Stone said Tuesday that he thinks any law to limit established public record information like autopsies is a huge overreach on behalf of lawmakers.

Stone also said that with questions surrounding the number of reported coronavirus deaths, now is a terrible time to try such a maneuver.

Nash County Health Director Bill Hill said he respects families’ privacy, but once a person has died, information about the cause and manner of death become public records vital to understanding trends and issues in public health.

So how did a bill that doesn’t sit right with the agencies it’s supposed to protect get past the House and Senate? 

Most legislators didn’t know the Section 2 provision was in SB 168.

State Sen. Rick Horner, R-Wilson, said the section was tucked away in an innocuous health and human services bill.

Horner, a big proponent of public records laws, told me Tuesday he was pissed off someone tried to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.

“We are going to get that fixed,” Horner said.

The bill presents a lot of questions, said state Rep. Shelly Wilingham, D-Edgecombe. He said he needs to go back and look at the ins and outs of the bill’s language. 

The bill, sponsored by Democrats and Republicans, received unanimous approval in the Senate and all but one vote in the House. 

Hopefully, an equally bipartisan approach can stop it dead.

Lindell J. Kay is a reporter for The Enterprise of Spring Hope and The Wilson Times. Reach him at 252-265-8117 and lkay@wilsontimes.com.