Questionable Media Entitlement to Brittany Murphy Autopsy Findings

Actress Brittany Murphy autopsy results are hotly awaited. News outlets and tabloids alike speculate, to varying extents, about her cause of death. What is the California autopsy law and how can you obtain an autopsy report? Should you?

Brittany Murphy Death and Autopsy

American actress and voice talent Brittany Murphy died on December 20th at the young age of 32. Her acting credits are plentiful and varied, ranging from Sin City to providing the voice for the slightly naive but eminently lovable Luanne on the animated King of the Hill series.

It is not surprising to have the public and media speculate on Brittany Murphy’s death cause; after all, 32 years is awfully young to die. What moves the discussion into a question of medical ethics is the entitlement, with which media outlets treat any possible revelations resulting from Brittany Murphy’s autopsy.

How Difficult is it to Obtain Brittany Murphy Autopsy Reports?

Los Angeles autopsy disclosure laws are surprisingly liberal. In order to obtain an autopsy report, any applicant merely needs to contact the Coroner’s Document Desk during business hours. During this conversation, the applicant receives information on how to obtain the records and how much they cost.

What makes this possible is the fact that autopsy reports and coroners’ reports are a matter of public record; thus the information gets released to anyone who asks for it and pays the associated fees. There are two noted exceptions, as outlined in Dixon v. Superior Court of El Dorado County: disclosure of an autopsy report may adversely affect criminal law enforcement activities and there is clear evidence that public evidence is better served by nondisclosure.

The party in this case argued that the freedom of the press was curtailed by not having access to the autopsy results, which the court dismissed with the understanding that the media’s right to public records is no greater than the average citizen’s right.

Freedom of the Press vs. Freedom to Speculate

A similar media circus surrounded the death of Michael Jackson. Autopsy results were eagerly awaited and the revelation that “possible toxicology results” were an issue of debate fueled the speculations about the King of Pop’s lifestyle and manner of death. Michael Jackson’s death was ruled a homicide; quoting the AP, CBS News reported the cause of death as “acute propofol intoxication.”

In a surprising twist that flies in the face of the aforementioned court ruling, this effectively should have barred the media’s access to the autopsy report but the AP nonetheless obtained a copy even without its being publically released. Details of the report soon flooded the ‘Net. Looking back on the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’ reaction to the Dixon case and a subsequent poster’s sentiment, it is obvious that access to California autopsy records is considered an entitlement.

While it is unclear what a Brittany Murphy autopsy will include and what her death cause will be in the end, it is troubling that there is as little privacy for the dead as there is for the living celebrities. In the case of the former, it is the surviving family that must bear the brunt of speculation and salacious publicity. Who knew?