While state law does not always require an autopsy when someone dies, any violent, suspicious or accidental death must be investigated by the pathologist in your state. Many people confuse the pathologist with the coroner's office, but they are not the same: the coroner records the death certificate from the pathologist's findings. Pathologists determine the cause of death, and issue an autopsy report. Once the physical examination, toxicology, microbiology and chemistry results are completed the report becomes a public record in most states.
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Locate the county where the person died. The office of the pathologist in the county where the person died is responsible for performing an autopsy, if ordered, and filing the results with the county coroner's office. If you're uncertain about where the person died, check local law enforcement for an incident report, the coroner's office for the death certificate or your newspaper's obituaries column.
Allow six to eight weeks for the pathologist to file a complete autopsy report with the coroner's office. If you are next of kin or the executor of the decedent's estate you're entitled to a free copy of the autopsy report. However, if the death is under investigation by law enforcement or is part of pending litigation, you will have to wait until the investigation or court case is closed to obtain the report.
Provide a written request for a copy of the report to the county coroner's office or state department of vital statistics. Some counties provide an online form. Check online or visit the local office.
Ask for a fee waiver. Sometimes copies can be provided free-of-charge if processing your request isn't expensive, according to most state open records or sunshine laws usually available for review on your state attorney general's website. If obtaining the report would involve unreasonable costs or demands a lot of time to process, avoid a fee by going to the location where the records are housed--usually the county coroner's office or the state department of vital statistics. Provide at least 24 hours notice so the record can be prepared for viewing.
Demonstrate the release of the autopsy report is in the public's interest or would help the public understand the operations and activities of the coroner's office or pathologist. Members of the press should file a Freedom of Information request if a less confrontational method does not work. As long as you do not have a commercial interest (for personal profit or gain) in the information contained in the autopsy report, most counties will release the information for free.
Tips and warnings
- Some states like Alaska and New York either do not make autopsy results public or redact information from the official report.
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