While the facts surrounding a suspicious or violent death rarely are pleasant, hiding them from public view - as a renewed legislative push in Harrisburg by Pennsylvania coroners would do - will not alter that fact.
A Senate bill that seeks to restrict access to coroner autopsy reports would throw a veil of secrecy over information that, by right, should be part of the public record. For good reason, then-Gov. Ed Rendell vetoed a similar measure last year. Rendell stood up for the basic principle that "the public has a right to the records produced with their taxpayer dollars."
Beyond that, coroner reports serve to alert citizens and inform policymakers. As the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association notes, there's a compelling public interest in information about the causes of fatal highway crashes, workplace mishaps, and, of course, suspicious deaths that later could be determined homicides.
In an oft-cited case, a Harrisburg newspaper used autopsy reports to expose the unjust convictions of four people in a death.
County coroners have other ideas, it seems. They say they're motivated by a desire to spare victims' families from having details made public on the deaths of loved ones. But as much as they may want it to be, it's not the coroners' job to dabble as grief counselors. Coroners are paid by taxpayers to focus solely on making the most professional assessment of the facts surrounding a death.
What's more, the practical impact of trying to keep all but the most basic sort of information secret - just name, cause, and "manner of death" - would be to shield coroners themselves from public scrutiny of their work.
Coroners succeeded in getting the proposal to Rendell's desk by sizable vote margins in both the state Senate and House in the last legislative session. With a new governor in office, they have their hopes up once again.
Yet, it's clear that this push for secrecy would go counter to impressive progress made by the state in expanding citizens' access to important public information under the state's right-to-know law. It's a certainty, as well, that burying autopsy reports will leave citizens in the dark about life-and-death details that it is in the public's interest to know.