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North Carolina state senator drops effort to restrict access to autopsy reports

North Carolina state Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican
Hannah Schoenbaum
North Carolina state Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican at the Legislative Building in Raleigh, N.C., on Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2023.

An effort to exempt autopsy reports from North Carolina's public records requirements was abandoned Tuesday by a Senate Republican, who said it's more important to win approval for a streamlined bill that would add punishments for distributing a drug the White House calls an “ emerging threat.”

Spearheaded by Robeson County state Sen. Danny Britt, the new version of the bill removes restrictions that would have shielded autopsy reports from public access until a probe or prosecution is completed. The amended bill then cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee and needs another committee's approval before it reaches the Senate floor.

The amended bill would add xylazine to a list of drugs that can bring stiff punishments to the distributor when a death results. Xylazine is a sedative not approved for human use, but it’s not federally classified as a controlled substance. The bill also still increases training requirements for county medical examiners and clarifies a medical examiner’s duties when inspecting a body.

“We just wanted to make sure we got that across the finish line and we can maybe come back and look at this other stuff later,” Britt said.

North Carolina currently allows people to inspect and review photos, videos and recordings in autopsy reports under supervision. The bill's previous iteration would have repealed that law and made the Chief Medical Examiner's written autopsy reports exempt from public records when they are part of a prosecutor's criminal investigative file.

When Britt introduced the bill in May, he said public access to autopsy reports is less important than upholding due process for someone being prosecuted, for example by ensuring that jurors aren't tainted by information from autopsies.

Britt said Tuesday that the only concerns he heard were from the media, not members of the public.

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