Placerville murder case sets precedent
The Mountain Democrat
PLACERVILLE ” The 1971 Cameron Park murder of 21-year-old Betty Marie Cloer led to the April 2008 conviction of Phillip Arthur Thompson in a Placerville courtroom.
This month, the case also set a statewide legal precedent on the confidentiality of autopsy records.
In 2004 the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Department ” which had investigated Cloer’s nearly 4-decade-old homicide ” refused to produce Cloer’s autopsy report to a Bay area Internet journalist who planned to write a book about the case.
The department argued, and a Superior Court judge ruled, that the report should be exempted from the Public Records Act because it was part of an investigation report, which is not subject to release.
The Web journalist and author, Kate Dixon,who maintains the Website newsmaking-news.com, argued that the public has a right to know the basics of how Cloer was killed. Dixon argued that autopsy reports aren’t investigation and only include basic cause of death information.
She actually won the right to see the report when she appealed the case to a state appeals court, but the Sheriff’s Department and El Dorado County Counsel still refused to turn the document over and pressed on for what they hoped would be a legal precedent. That’s what they got last week, when the same appeals court that had ruled in favor of Dixon ruled in favor of the county.
According to the ruling, an autopsy report can be exempted from the Public Records Act if it concerns a homicide with a “concrete and definite prospect” of prosecution.
“I think it’s very good for law enforcement and also good for the safety of the public,” said Chief Assistant County Counsel Ed Knapp, who handled the case.
Knapp said the court’s published ruling (published meaning the ruling sets a formal legal precedent and can be used in future argument), also resolves confusion among law enforcement agencies in the state’s 58 counties as to how to deal with these reports.
“Before every agency was handling it their own way,” Knapp said. “Sacramento County wasn’t releasing them because of HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) laws, which wasn’t a valid argument because HIPPA laws don’t apply to someone who is no longer living.
“This ruling resolves the issue in a very real context.”
Knapp said the Thompson case is a perfect example of why the ruling is so fitting.
He pointed to how a key ring found near Cloer’s body, which was documented in the coroner’s report, ended up being a big piece of evidence in the case against Thompson.
In the 64-year-old Thompson’s murder trial, his ex-wife testified that he had owned a similar key ring at or around the time of the murder.
Knapp said that if information such as that had been released to the public, the ex-wife’s life could have been endangered, since she was the keeper of such powerful evidence.
“That’s not the kind of information that autopsy reports include,” she said. “They don’t just throw the whole kitchen sink in there. The report is only to include information such as how and when she died.”
Dixon said such information is key to the case and necessary to write her book.
“This is public information that should be shown to anyone who requests it,” she added.
Knapp said the ruling will affect only a small percentage of cases.
“Ninety percent of autopsy reports don’t relate to any kind of an investigation,” he said, “and those will continue to be made public.”
Dixon said she does not view this ruling as final. She plans to make an appeal to the California Supreme Court within the month.
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