Are autopsy reports a public record?

A while back, somebody I knew died from head injuries resulting from unknown causes. He lost consciousness before he could tell anyone what happened and never recovered. It’s been on my mind ever since.

Fast forward a few months, and the autopsy is finally completed after a number of delays. The linked newspaper article doesn’t have a whole lot of details, and I was wondering if it’s possible to get the actual autopsy report.

Are these reports a matter of public record? If so, how do I get a copy? Generally speaking, is there always an actual written report, or do journalists just interview the pathologist?

It depends on where you live. I assume you live in California. I can’t find detailed information from the state’s website, but this 2004 editorial from the Los Angeles Times indicates that autopsy reports are public record. Assembly Bill 2521, which would have prevented virtually anyone from accessing these reports in the name of protecting the family, did not pass the Senate and thus did not become law. So you’d be able to get a copy from the Humboldt County Health Department, or at least they can help you find where to get it. It’s illegal to obtain autopsy photos, for what that’s worth.

In Pennsylvania, where I live, full autopsy reports are not released to the general public and are sometimes sealed if they’re admitted into evidence in court. You can get a summary that includes the decedent’s name and cause and manner of death, but that’s it.

In this scenario, there would be a formal report, but most likely, the reporter talked to the pathologist or someone in that office. Formal reports can take a lot of time to assemble; they often involve test results and such that take more time to complete. The actual cause of death may be known fairly quickly, which is why the pathologist’s office had an answer.

That said, there was more detail in that article than you may have realized. The pathologist found evidence of an aneurysm that may have blown, causing bleeding in the brain, which in turn, may have caused the fall that caused the head injury that actually killed him. Dunno if that helps, but there you are.


I would add that there is always a full written autopsy report, no matter what type of autopsy we’re talking about, assuming the pathologist has done his/her job. How much of that is public record (in the case of forensic autopsies) is another matter.

Non-forensic autopsy reports should always be like any other health record that was not compiled on behalf of a public agency - confidential and accessible only by those with a compelling reason to access it (caregivers and family).

Autopsy report privacy handling is state by state, often requiring a court intervention to protect them from being published.

As a physician it’s my opinion that not making them automatically protected is a gross violation of privacy. Certain deaths might have a public interest in knowing some basic details of the cause–where that’s appropriate to release I have no issue with it.

However knowing that Susie down the street had an “Exit Only” tattoo on her backside, breast implants, and evidence of a recent surgical abortion may serve to titillate gossips but has nothing to do with the fact that she died of blunt chest trauma in a motor vehicle crash. There is no broad public interest served by publishing the details of her personal life. Not even the specific trauma details are important to the public domain, teenage gawkers of them notwithstanding.

Thanks for the responses, all. Looks like I’ll be checking with the Health Department for more info.

And Chief Pedant, thanks for that perspective. I think I can sympathize with your reasoning. I’m certainly not interested in violating his or his family’s privacy. It’s just hard losing a friend and not having any idea how or why it happened. The newspaper article, as MsRobyn pointed out, did describe the cause of death… I guess I’m just searching for any answers I can get, going so far as to (naively) hope that the full report might have even more detail. Realistically, I’m not expecting anything short of sudden eyewitness report to ever uncover how it actually happened, but I guess everything little bit of data is better than nothing.

I had an interesting issue with this over the summer, actually. See this Pit thread for details.


404, you’re just curious about the* cause* of death, right? Would a death certificate be sufficient? I would assume death certificates, like birth certificates, are public record. Please correct me if I’m wrong.

The ones I’ve seen have the cause of death on them. Just no gory details.

I used to work part time for a lawyer and would do his paper work hunting and many times I would find “official” copies of death certificates only to find they were amended later and not filed and the cause of death was radically different.

The autopsy report that was public record will often be just brief, especially if the case is not properly closed by the medical examiner. Sometimes they just fail to close it and the records stands closed till then.

In that case you need co-operation of the family to get it. Usually if you’re an ameture sleuth and you want to find an interesting cold case, the family has to get involved to get anywhere.

It depends on the jurisdiction. In California, where the OP lives, you can get an “informational copy” which is a certified copy with the words “Informational, not a valid document to establish identity” across the face of it. Other jurisdictions can be more restrictive about who they’ll allow to access those records.

That being said, there are occasionally issues with how causes of death and contributing factors are recorded. The CDC issued a rather lengthy document on how to fill out the paperwork correctly. Also, death certificates may not necessarily be issued by the doctor who performed the autopsy, so they may be complete and accurate to the best of one physician’s knowledge, but wrong once the autopsy has been finished and that report finalized, which explains how death certificates can be amended some time later.