Bill would allow medical examiners to access records in inmate deaths
Posted March 23, 2015
Updated March 25, 2015
Raleigh, N.C. — A bill in the state House would require prison officials to turn over records to the state medical examiner after an inmate death.
Bill sponsor Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham, said the measure was prompted by restrictions that "seem to have limited" the medical examiner's office in the investigation into death of 53-year-old Michael Kerr on March 12, 2014. Kerr, an Army veteran suffering from schizoaffective disorder, died of dehydration after five days handcuffed in his cell at Alexander Correctional Institution, where he had been in solitary confinement for more than a month.
In December, The News & Observer detailed limitations the state Department of Public Safety placed on Kerr's records during his autopsy investigation. The Associated Press was the first to reveal the restrictions following the publication of the autopsy in September.
According to a memo prepared by DPS, medical examiner Dr. Susan Venuti had to agree only to review – not copy – the case records, which included confidential personnel information and inmate records. DPS, the memo reads, would maintain all case documents she reviewed.
"There seemed to be a disconnect between the Department of Public Safety and the medical examiners on what was going on," Hall said, noting that the restrictions affected the timely release of information.
Although he's never heard of the agency enacting similar restrictions in other prison death cases, he said his bill was designed to clean up gray areas in the current law and prevent legal "gymnastics" like this from happening in the future.
"Whenever these type of situations come up, we should go to highest degree possible to find out what happened," Hall said.
The bill would also require the State Bureau of Investigation to turn over any reports to the medical examiner's office in the event of a death investigation by the agency.
The SBI, as well as a federal grand jury, is still investigating Kerr's death nearly a year later. No charges have been filed, but 25 people in the prison system have resigned, been fired or received some other type of disciplinary action in the case. Several of those employees appealed to get their jobs back – some have succeeded.
Two other House Democrats, as well as Republican Rep. Mitchell Setzer, are sponsoring the bill, which is scheduled to go before the House Committee on Health Wednesday.
Hall said he expects the bill to gain broad support.
"Most people would say if we have a problem and have a death, let's find out what happened as quickly as possible so we can move on," Hall said.