ATLANTA -- A superior court judge has granted a motion to unseal the autopsy report for Bobbi Kristina Brown. Judge Henry M. Newkirk responded to a motion filed by WXIA-TV's parent company TEGNA Media in the Superior Court of Fulton County.
The motion, which cites Georgia's Open Meetings and Open Records Act, calls for the Court to lift its September 28, 2015 order sealing "the autopsy report, all related investigative reports, all related toxicology reports, the death certificate and any other documents used and/or created by the Medical Examiner's Office regarding the autopsy of Bobbi Kristina Brown."
It claims the sealing order should be vacated because it was entered without notice to the public and without an opportunity for a hearing, in violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Georgia Constitution, and the rules of the court. The motion declares there is no question that autopsy reports are public records which have historically been open to the press and general public.
In its response, the State countered "All public records shall be open for personal inspection and copying, except those by order of a court of this state or by law are specifically exempted from disclosure."
The State countered that the Open Meetings Act has a provision permitting a public record to be exempt from disclosure by court order. The state argued in court Thursday morning it should remain sealed because it's part of an ongoing investigation. They say they are still "actively pursing leads" and if unsealed, the autopsy could provide information known only to the state and put people at risk.
"It contains information that is not privy to everyone," state attorney Paige Whitaker argued. "Right now there is information in that that might be only privy to people investigating this case and to the perpetrators. It is not in the public interest of public safety, of crime-solving of the confidentially of investigations."
The judge told the State it had months to file charges.
"We hope to wrap up before too much longer. We are still actively investigating this case. At this point, it is sensitive information that could jeopardize the case," Whitaker said.
Judge Newkirk said the sealing order arrived on his desk in September of 2015 and the state "seemed anxious to get the order signed". At the time, the state felt disclosure of the autopsy would create a greater risk of flight. The judge said he expected the press would file an unsealing motion within 15 days. "Had I known that WXIA was at the door at the DA's office at the time I signed that order, you would have been notified," Judge Newkirk said. He didn't know anyone was actively seeking that document or he would have notified WXIA he was asked to sign it, per the Open Records Act. He said he believes the press has deliberately stayed away and given the state time.
According to the motion filed by TEGNA Media attorney Derek Bauer on behalf of 11Alive News, Judge Newkirk did not have access to read the autopsy report he was asked to seal. Bauer says that makes the order "constitutionally flawed and fatally vacated." He argues the process was flawed not by the state's request to seal the order, not the judge's actions.
Attorneys for 11Alive referenced the dramatic rise in heroin in the area. If Bobbi Kristina died from a heroin overdose as some have speculated, it would be in the public's interest to know, they said.
The judge granted the motion to disclose the records. He will sign the unsealing soon, likely within two days. The Fulton County DA's office said it will not not appeal. In a release sent Thursday afternoon, D.A. Paul L. Howard said,
"On September 25th, 2015, when my office requested that the autopsy be withheld from the public, we felt that we had valid public safety and investigative reasons for that request. It is our feeling that those valid reasons still exist; however, as citizens and officers of the court we must, nevertheless, follow the orders and instructions of the court."
11Alive's efforts to unseal the autopsy comes one week after the digital premiere of the four-part digital documentary, Inside the Triangle. That investigation about heroin use in Atlanta's northern affluent suburbs uncovered a connection between Bobbi Kristina and three heroin-related deaths in the area. Episode 2 of the digital series covers that connection. Watch it here.
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