Commonwealth Court orders Allegheny County to provide autopsy records to journalists

Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism

Over two years after an initial public records request for the autopsy of an incarcerated man who died at the Allegheny County Jail, a state court ruled that Allegheny County must release the medical examiner’s full autopsy report to Brittany Hailer of the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. 

In a 6 -1 decision Tuesday, the Commonwealth Court reversed a Common Pleas court ruling, granting Hailer the autopsy records for Daniel Pastorek, 63, who died in the county jail’s mental health unit in November 2020. 

The county argued that because Allegheny County is a second-class county (a designation based on population) it is exempt from Pennsylvania’s Right-to-Know Law and Coroner’s Act. 

Commonwealth Judge Ellen Ceisler wrote in the majority opinion:  “Accepting the conclusions of the trial court would lead to the absurd result that a requester could receive autopsy records located anywhere in the Commonwealth, unless those records are located in [Allegheny] County or Philadelphia County.”

A non-family member requestor must pay $500 to access records, according to state law. PINJ will pay the sum as soon as the medical examiner’s office and county make clear whether the office will appeal. Allegheny County has 30 days to file an appeal. 

Hailer received free legal support from Paula Knudsen Burke and Sasha Dudding of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

She told the RCFP in an interview, “What an incredible resource. What a privilege to have that labor for three years,” said Hailer, who praised the “brilliant” legal work of Burke and Dudding. “We’re very, very lucky to have a resource like this in Pennsylvania.”

“You’re helping change the news. You’re helping keep that [local news] ecosystem flourishing with your support for small outfits like us,” she added. “All of that hard work is sustaining and revitalizing local news and helping places that aren’t just the big guys hold our government accountable.”

Pastorek’s death is the first jail death Hailer covered, which resulted in three years of tracking and reporting deaths at the jail, an effort that has been recognized regionally and nationally. Since April 2020, 19 men have died following their incarceration at the jail. Hailer’s reporting has pushed Pittsburgh local media into covering the jail’s death rate.

This year, The Pulitzer Center funded PINJ and PennLive to build a database of Pennsylvania jail deaths, in part because of Hailer’s reporting on the Allegheny County Jail. That project is forthcoming. 

You can read more about Allegheny v Hailer in the TribLIVE or listen to Hailer discuss the case on 90.5 WESA’s The Confluence.

Photo by Jake Dabkowski.