Martin leading push for state FOIA reform

Senator sponsoring bills on agenda, autopsy rules

COLUMBIA — State Sen. Larry Martin says recent events have made it clear “we’re living in a different world today,” and that world requires greater transparency in both government and law enforcement.

Martin, along with other likeminded senators, is sponsoring for the upcoming legislative session two Freedom of Information Act reform bills — one that would open up autopsy records and another to amend the rules regarding agendas for public meetings.

A subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee met in late October to review those FOIA issues, and Martin chose to pre-file the bills, S. 10 and S. 11, for January’s session.

The committee chairman, Martin told The Journal last week the controversy over the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., as well as similar incidents inside the state, made the need for autopsy reform all the more pertinent.

“Any information we can get that will better educate the public, particularly in light of what went on in Ferguson and other parts of the country we heard about — the cause of death information needs to be released on the autopsy as soon as possible,” Martin said.

Martin pointed to a June incident involving a 19-year-old Charleston man who allegedly killed himself during a struggle with an off-duty police officer, former Clemson football player Jamal Medlin, who was working security at a Charleston apartment complex.

“The officer takes him down, and the kid is able to wrestle his hand free, pulls out his gun and shoots himself in the head,” he said. “It got real ugly. As a matter of fact, I predict — and I hate to say this — but for the fact it was a black officer, as a result of all the hoopla associated with it, it probably would have been the Ferguson of the South.”

But the autopsy results clearly confirmed the man, Denzel Curnell, shot himself, Martin said, and the controversy somewhat abated.

The bill Martin has pre-filed in the Senate would amend the state code relating to FOIA laws to remove the cause of death from the autopsy exclusions of information subject to public release and include reports of the cause of death among public information.

While the Ferguson, Mo., case has made national headlines, the need for autopsy reform is “an ongoing concern in our state,” agreed South Carolina Press Association executive director Bill Rogers.

“In Camden less than two weeks ago, a certified public accountant was shot to death by U.S. Marshals,” Rogers wrote in the SCPA newsletter. “They are refusing to release his autopsy report. There were about 50 police shootings in South Carolina last year, and there needs to be public oversight.

“In the case that went to the Supreme Court (in Sumter), an innocent man was shot in the back by cops, and the coroner refused to release the autopsy report … therefore covering up for the cops.”

Martin said there was concern by one member of the subcommittee that opening autopsy records might allow too much private information to become public.

“I was a little bit surprised by that because, as I see it, this does two things — it protects law enforcement to the extent you don’t have this hanging out there for a long period of time if there is law enforcement involvement in a Ferguson or Sumter-type situation,” Martin said. “It puts the information out there so the public is not unsettled about it and has a better idea as to what actually happened as to the cause of death.”

The second FOIA bill Martin is sponsoring would require a public body to provide an agenda for all regularly scheduled meetings and items not be added to the agenda later than 24 hours before the meeting, except by a two-thirds vote of the body.

Martin said one argument against being able to amend agendas by a two-thirds vote is public bodies could routinely not list a controversial topic and then amend the agenda when they meet, thereby not notifying the public of the item.

“The problem I have with that is, number one, most financial issues require more than one reading, but also, if a public body engages in that practice — to deceptively operate without the public being given notice — the public will deal with them,” he said.

Martin said he is hopeful both bills would go without much discussion and be passed by the Senate by the end of January.

“I’m optimistic,” he said. “We’ve made it a priority, and it’s at the very top of the judiciary committee agenda.”