The Ohio Supreme Court upheld a journalist’s ability to examine preliminary autopsy records and investigative notes made by a coroner, effectively granting media access to never-before-seen records in the 2016 murders of eight people in Pike County.
The records reveal one of the victims, Christopher Rhoden Sr., had been shot through a door, according to the Columbus Dispatch, which first reviewed the records after the court’s decision Wednesday.
The Dispatch, citing the coroner’s records made available Wednesday, said Rhoden, 40, had been shot nine times all over his body, while seven other victims had been shot in the head.
Authorities suspect there were multiple attackers who were familiar with the victims’ homes and the surrounding area, about 100 miles southeast of Dayton. Hannah Rhoden, 19, Dana Rhoden, 37, Christopher Rhoden Jr., 16, Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 20, Hannah Gilley, 20, Kenneth Rhoden, 44, and Gary Rhoden, 38, also died in the April 22, 2016 shootings.
The state’s highest court ruled in favor of the Cincinnati Enquirer and against the Pike County coroner and health district.
“This is a case that is now over two years old, unsolved, and I think the investigators deserve to be scrutinized,” said attorney Jack Greiner, the Enquirer’s attorney and an expert in public records law.
No suspects have ever been identified in the case, considered Ohio’s largest-ever investigation.
Several media outlets — including Cox Media Group Ohio, which owns the Dayton Daily News, Journal-News of Butler County, Springfield News-Sun, News Center 7 and WHIO Radio — previously sought access to certain coroner records and were denied.
In December, in a previous 4-3 ruling against the Enquirer and the Columbus Dispatch, the court ruled that autopsy records in the murders may be withheld from the public until the homicide investigation is closed.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, writing the majority opinion in the December case, said the coroner records fell under an exemption in the public records law that allowed governments to withhold confidential law enforcement investigatory records.
But on Wednesday, the court considered a new question: “not whether the preliminary autopsy reports are public records (they are not), but whether journalists are entitled to see them nonetheless.”
Yes, the court ruled, “the coroner shall grant a journalist’s proper request to review preliminary autopsy and investigative notes made by the coroner.”
O’Connor and Justices Terrence O’Donnell, Patrick Fischer and Mary DeGenaro concurred in Wednesday’s decision, while Justice Sharon Kennedy concurred in judgment only. Justices Judith French and Patrick DeWine did not participate.
The court said the case involved “a matter of great public importance: whether journalists may review, and presumably report on, preliminary autopsy reports in open homicide cases.”
The Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which is investigating the killings, made reports and photos available for inspection Wednesday morning. Under Ohio law, reporters can only view the information and are prohibited even from taking notes.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, whose office represented the Pike County governments in the case, did not immediately comment. DeWine’s office has said Christopher Rhoden Sr. had “a large-scale marijuana growing operation,” leading some to speculate the killings were drug-related.
Associated Press reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins contributed reporting. Contact this reporter at 937-259-2086 or email Will.Garbe@coxinc.com.
Read more coverage:
Thank you for reading the Springfield News-Sun and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.
Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Springfield News-Sun. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.