Judge denies feds' request on Tucson autopsies

AP News
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Posted: Mar 03, 2011 7:19 PM
Judge denies feds' request on Tucson autopsies

The judge presiding over the case against the suspect in January's Tucson, Ariz., shooting rampage has refused to grant a prosecution request to bar the release of autopsy reports for the six people killed in the attack.

Bruce Parks, Pima County's chief medical examiner, said he intends on Monday afternoon to release the autopsy reports that his office produced in the case.

U.S. District Judge Larry Burns said in a ruling released Thursday that he has been given no proof to support prosecutors' presumption that the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office was poised to release the reports or is obligated to do so. Autopsy reports qualify as public records in Arizona, but the prevailing case law concludes that they don't have to be made public if disclosure would present specific risks, he said.

Prosecutors argued that releasing the records could taint the jury pool and hurt chances for a fair trial and noted that the families of five of the victims objected to the release of the reports. Lawyers for 22-year-old Jared Lee Loughner, who is accused of carrying out the attack, joined prosecutors in opposing the release of autopsy records, which have been requested by news reporters.

Prosecutors can make their request again when it becomes apparent the chances of a fair trial are in question, the judge said.

Burns also denied a request by prosecutors to prohibit the medical examiner's office from talking to reporters about the case. There's no evidence that the office was prepared to speak with reporters about the autopsies, he said.

Thirteen people were wounded and another six people were killed in the Jan. 8 attack at a political event held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a Tucson grocery store. Loughner has pleaded not guilty to charges of trying to assassinate Giffords and kill two of her aides.

He also is expected to face federal charges in the deaths of U.S. District Judge John Roll and Giffords aide Gabe Zimmerman. Loughner also will likely face state charges but will be tried first in federal court before any prosecution begins on state charges.

Loughner's attorneys asked Burns on Monday to prohibit federal prison officials from passing along confidential medical or psychological records about their client to federal prosecutors.

Defense lawyers want to bar the Bureau of Prisons from releasing information about visits by Loughner's defense team, observations by prison staff about Loughner and any information that isn't regularly released in prosecutions.

Robbie Sherwood, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona, declined to comment on the request.

The judge also issued an order Thursday setting the rules for lawyers on how to try to get documents sealed in the case.

Burns said the presumption is that documents are open to public inspection and the assertion that an open filing will jeopardize someone's rights is inadequate to justify keeping a document private. The order didn't explain what circumstances prompted the judge to set the rules.