EDITORIAL: Let coroner bill die
As local journalists, we’re pretty familiar with how York County Coroner Pam Gay and her staff do their jobs.
When tragedy strikes and claims a life — be it because of a car crash, shooting or some other accident or violent crime — the coroner or one of her deputies immediately head to the scene, day or night, rain or shine.
They declare the victim dead and begin an investigation, which might include ordering an autopsy, to determine how and why he or she died.
The coroner’s office also immediately begins the process of finding next of kin to inform them of their loss.
Our job is to report what happened, when, where and to whom, as quickly possible. The community’s interest can be boiled down to this: Did it happen to someone I know, could it happen to me or one of my loved ones, and is there any action I can take to make that less likely?
Take it from us — we can ask all we like, but the York County Coroner’s Office will not release the name of a victim until that person’s family has been notified.
That was standard procedure for Gay’s predecessors in York County, as well, and Gay said she’s unaware of any coroner in Pennsylvania who doesn’t follow that rule.
So it was a bit perplexing to see state lawmakers continue to push a law that essentially would have required Pennsylvania coroners to do what they already do.
The House last week approved and sent to the Senate House Bill 297, which would severely restrict the information coroners are allowed to release to the public.
The main feature of an earlier version of the bill would have prohibited coroners from releasing victims’ names or information about or their deaths until after next of kin is notified or until 72 hours after either identification of the victim has been made or cause and manner of death has been determined.
That, as we noted, is basically what Pennsylvania coroners already do.
State Rep. Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township, the only co-sponsor from York County, has acknowledged he's never heard of a situation where a coroner publicly released a dead person's identity without first notifying family.
The main sponsor, state Rep. Eli Evankovich, R-Westmoreland and Allegheny counties, also has admitted as much.
"It just kind of sets the standard," he told The York Dispatch last year. "We did not want to put handcuffs on anyone. We wanted to (reinforce) what is already happening."
In other words, the legislation was unnecessary.
Yet, now the bill has changed — for the worse.
Gone is the reference to a 72-hour waiting period, leaving language that does indeed put handcuffs on Pennsylvania coroners and medical examiners.
Currently, once family of a victim has been notified, Gay releases that person’s name; the cause of death, such as shooting or blunt-force trauma; and the manner, such as homicide or accidental.
However, under this wide-ranging and, frankly, sloppy bill, coroners might not be able to notify the public of the cause and manner of deaths or even the victims’ names if doing so might “jeopardize an official investigation.”
Keep in mind: If a coroner is involved in a death, you can bet police are, too.
The vague language of this bill would allow police officers to overrule a coroner simply trying to do the job he or she was elected to do, or the equally ominous references to criminal or civil liability could cow coroners into withholding public information.
As the Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association notes, the information coroners make public “is critical to our understanding of what’s happening in our communities and to our everyday lives. HB297 would greatly restrict access to that fundamental information; it is misguided and contrary to the public interest.”
It is for that reason a victim’s name, cause and manner of death “were expressly made public in the 2008 overhaul of the Right to Know Law,” according to the PNA.
We think the state lawmakers should be more concerned about doing their own jobs than telling other elected officials how to do theirs — and weakening Pennsylvania’s sunshine laws in the process.
Hopefully the Senate lets this coroner bill die in these waning days of the current session.