Delaware Supreme Court ruling: a family's privacy trumps the public's interest in a suspicious death

Delaware high court has ruled against a police chief who wanted to release autopsy records, and finds that a family's privacy trumps the public's interest in a suspicious death.

The Rehoboth Beach Police Chief and other Delaware officials cannot release information about the death of a businessman who was found last year inside his burned BMW, the state Supreme Court ruled Monday. Reversing a lower court decision, the five justices ruled unanimously in favor of Lisa Lawson, who sued the police chief, the state medical examiner and others to keep them from releasing autopsy information about her late husband.

Duane Lawson, the owner of a Gold's Gym, was found dead in his burned car in a Rehoboth Beach hotel parking garage in February 2005. The death attracted intense media coverage and public speculation, according to court records. The speculation included allegations of a police cover-up, The Associated Press reported.

Rehoboth Beach Police Chief Keith Banks wanted to release information about how Lawson died, but Lisa Lawson sought a permanent injunction to keep him and others from doing so on the grounds that the information was private and protected. Justice Randy J. Holland cited a recent attorney general opinion that says autopsy reports are investigatory files exempt from the Delaware Freedom of Information Act. That opinion is being challenged in court.

Some observers said the ruling appears to create a new right of privacy after a person dies.

Alice Neff Lucan, a Washington lawyer who provides counsel to the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Press Association on its access hotline, said "The reports kept by government agencies in a suspicious death are in the public interest."

Lawson v. Meconi; Counsel for state defendants: Ann Woolfolk, Department of Justice, Wilmington, Del.

Officials cannot release autopsy results in car fire death (Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, 6 April 2006)