When I was researching my article on Mississippi medical examiner Dr. Steven Hayne, I made an open records request to Mississippi's state crime lab. My query was pretty simple: I asked for the number of autopsies Dr. Hayne performed on a specific date. I didn't ask for copies of the autopsy reports, or the names of the people he performed the autopsies on. That information is generally available in other states. But I didn't want to give Mississippi's Department of Public Safety the chance to turn me down. So I only asked for a number.
They turned me down anyway. Their reason? Even giving me a number would violate the privacy of the deceased persons on whom the autopsies were performed. Absurd, no?
So this bit of news from Editor & Publisher isn't terribly surprising:
Eddie Stephenson, an insurance agent in Hattiesburg, has tried to find out details about the February 4, 2005, death of his son, Matthew, who wrecked his vehicle while being chased by Lamar County deputies. Stephenson requested radio and dispatch logs and accident and investigative reports, but officials refused.
"I feel like my civil rights have been violated because they won't give me this information," Stephenson said.
He spent more than two years fighting for the logs and reports, even filing a lawsuit that was settled last year. Under the agreement, he cannot disclose details of the settlement.
A number of people have told me similar stories about the problems they've encountered while trying to obtain records of loved ones on whom Dr. Hayne has performed autopsies.
But Mississippi isn't alone.
Mississippi is one of 38 states that got an "F" in the 2007 study by the Better Government Association and the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
"These kinds of sunshine matters, unfortunately, generally are not high priority with an individual citizen until he or she is personally impacted," said Leonard Van Slyke, a Jackson attorney who represents news organizations in Freedom of Information lawsuits. "But when that day arrives, that person is generally appalled with the lack of recourse."
I ran into problems in this area, too:
Campaign finance records have been a constant source of complaints from government watchdogs who say Mississippi requires too little disclosure. A national study by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Center for Governmental Studies, the UCLA School of Law and the California Voter Foundation gives Mississippi a failing grade because the state does not require candidates to file campaign finance forms that are in a searchable, electronic form.
And that's for statewide office. It's basically impossible to track down donations to the campaigns of county coroners.
And even these easily circumventable rules are relatively toothless. The fine for knowingly violating Mississippi's public records law is all of $100. Not much to pony up if you're a government official with something to hide.