Las Vegas, NV – The Associated Press and the Las Vegas Review-Journal are both suing the widow of a police officer who was killed during the Oct. 1, 2017 shooting at the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas.
The battle began when the Associated Press and the Las Vegas Review-Journal jointly sued to have all of the shooting victims’ autopsy reports released in January of 2018, according to KLAS.
Clark County District Court judge Timothy Williams ordered the Clark County Coroner’s Office to release 58 redacted autopsy reports on Jan. 31, the Press Freedom Tracker reported.
Veronica Hartfield, the widow of Las Vegas Metro Police Officer Charleston Hartfield, who was off-duty when he was fatally shot during the gunman’s shooting spree from the Mandalay Bay resort, sued the publications to keep her husband’s autopsy report from being released, KLAS reported.
Fifty-eight people were murdered, another 851 were injured in Las Vegas during the deadliest mass shooting committed on American soil.
On Feb. 9, a judge ordered the Associated Press and the Las Vegas Review-Journal to return copies of the redacted autopsy report, and barred both publications from reporting further on the murdered officers’ autopsy, the Associated Press reported.
Officer Hartfield’s widow argued that the autopsy records were confidential and contained protected health information, according to the Associated Press.
"All she ever wanted to do was say when is enough enough? Relative to the heartache that has to be levied on her whenever she reads an article. Every time they want to do something, do they really need the autopsy report?" said attorney Tony Sgro said, who represented Veronica Hartfield.
Sgro said the publications did not need the information, and argued it went past the limit of the First Amendment, KLAS reported.
But Maggie McLetchie, attorney for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, claimed the judge’s order was unconstitutional and argued that other media outlets had not been banned from using the autopsy report.
In fact, the Huffington Post published summaries of all 58 autopsy reports on Feb. 15, the Press Freedom Tracker reported.
The judge’s order presented a logistical problem for the Associated Press and the Las Vegas Review-Journal because, as the autopsy reports had been redacted prior to their release, the publications couldn’t tell which one was Officer Hartfield’s autopsy. As a result, they were effectively banned from publishing any of them.
KLAS reported that the court eventually sided with the Las Vegas Review-Journal and Associated Press, and allowed them to publish the fallen hero’s autopsy.
“While we are deeply sympathetic to the decedent’s family’s privacy concerns, the First Amendment does not permit a court to enjoin the press from reporting on a redacted autopsy report already in the public domain,” the Nevada Supreme Court said.
Clark County District Judge Michelle Leavitt dismissed Veronica Hartfield’s lawsuit on May 14 and said the suit couldn’t go forward because the Nevada Supreme Court had already declared the autopsy reports to be public record, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported.
But that wasn’t enough to satisfy the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
“It would undermine both the free speech rights of the media and the important democratic principles underpinning the Nevada Public Records Act if the media could be sued for successfully suing to get access to records and reporting on public records,” the newspaper’s attorney said.
McLetchie filed a lawsuit against Verona Hartfield seeking $60,000 in legal fees, claiming that the court’s ruling allowed her to hold the widow’s attorney responsible for the publications’ costs.
"Everybody's heart goes out to Mrs. Hartfield and her family. Nobody wants to undermine the pain she is suffering. That doesn't mean though that her lawsuit can go forward, and it's an attorney's obligation to explain to a client, look what you're trying to do is illegal," McLetchie said, according to KLAS.
The case will now go to the Nevada Supreme Court, according to KLAS.