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RJ Wins First Amendment Decision on October 1 Autopsies

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Brent Holmes

The broken out window on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay a day after a gunman open fired from there.

It’s a question that journalists have been contemplating in this era of mass shootings: in how much detail do we describe the wounds of the victims. What constitutes sensationalism? And, on the other end, at what point do we use words to actually hide the brutality?

Las Vegas attorney Maggie McLetchie has been arguing since shortly after the October 1 shooting that journalists and the public can have access to the autopsy records because they are public records.

In addition, she has argued that it is part of the duty of the news media to investigate all aspects of the shooting and its aftermath and those records are part of that investigation

She has been joined in this argument by one of her clients, Glenn Cook, the managing editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

McLetchie filed suit in November on behalf of the Review-Journal and the Associated Press. The suit has had many ups and downs, which recently ended in a ruling by a three-judge panel of the state Supreme Court.

The courts at first ruled the autopsy reports should be given to the press. And in January, about 100 media outlets received them. Around that time, the Huff Post published a pretty detailed rundown of each victims’ cause of death. The RJ published a story that they had received the autopsies.

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But another suit by a victim's wife led a district court judge to order the RJ and the Associated Press to destroy just one report they were given.

The Supreme Court reversed that decision on the grounds of prior restraint. The cat had already been let out of the bag, so to speak.

However, the attorney for the victim's wife told KNPR's State of Nevada the autopsy report is continuing his client's pain.

"The damage is emotional, psychological, the mental stress," Attorney Anthony Sgro said.

McLetchie pointed out that while she and her client understand the pain his client is going through Sgro has been unable in court to point to anything specific in the reporting done by the Review-Journal and the Associated Press that is causing her harm.

McLetchie and Cook pointed out that the autopsy reports were redacted, meaning information that would have helped someone identify the person was blacked out.

Instead, Cook said they used the information in those reports to shed light on some of what witnesses had said about what happened that night, including how local hospitals and first responders reacted to the massacre.

He said the newspaper was never interested in sensationalizing the event.

"We've never had an interest in sensationalizing or being overly graphic to our local audience about the suffering and the damage these people took before they passed away," he said. 

 

McLetchie said that while it was difficult to argue against a widow of a person killed on 1 October it wasn't the RJ or the Associated Press that caused the harm that day.

"I think it is deeply offensive to the media and to the First Amendment to hold the media accountable for what Mr. Paddock did," she said.

Guests

Attorney Maggie McLetchie; Attorney Anthony Sgro; Glenn Cook, RJ Managing Editor 

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