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US Court of Appeals Finds for Defendant District Attorney in Autopsy Photo Leak

The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed in May 2012 the decision of the USDC SD California, dismissing the §1983 claim against and granting qualified immunity to a retired deputy district attorney in a case involving the release of a child’s autopsy photo to the media. Phillip Buell, the two year-old son of Plaintiff Brenda Marsh, died in 1983, allegedly at the hand of her then boyfriend, Kenneth Marsh, who claimed the child fell off a couch and landed on the fireplace hearth. Kenneth Marsh was convicted of murder and served almost two decades in the California prison system until, after filing a second habeas corpus, the D.A.’s expert could not conclude beyond a reasonable doubt that the child was the victim of abuse. Marsh was released from prison, and sued the San Diego County and medical personnel overseeing the child’s autopsy. During depositions for that action it came out that Deputy D.A. Jay S. Coulter, the prosecutor in Marsh’s murder case, kept copies of autopsy photos of the child. After Coulter retired and Marsh was released, Coulter gave one of the autopsy photos, along with an article, “What Really Happened to Phillip Buell,” to the media.

Brenda Marsh filed a §1983 suit against Coulter and the County of San Diego alleging that copying and dissemination of the autopsy photos violated her Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. The parties cross-filed for summary judgment, which was granted in favor of Coulter and the County.

The appeals court’s analysis was concerned for the most part with a dissection of the requirements necessary to prevail in a § 1983 claim. A plaintiff must prove he was “deprived of a right secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States, and that the alleged violation was committed under color of state law.” A plaintiff must show that the right was clearly established at the time of the violation, otherwise the government official would be entitled to qualified immunity.

It was Plaintiff’s burden to establish she had a federally recognized right to control the autopsy photos of her child. There was an exception applicable to prosecutors respecting the legislation controlling dissemination of autopsy photos. Marsh had to overcome that with common law right. She argued that such a right existed both as a function of substantive due process and procedural due process, to both of which the court concurred.

The court, however, did not accept Marsh’s argument characterizing Defendant’s actions as under color of state law. At the time of the action under scrutiny the defendant was retired, and not a state employee, an at the time of his copying the photos there was not clearly established federal right granted Plaintiff for control over the autopsy photos.

The court held that Coulter was properly granted qualified immunity, affirmed the district court’s judgment, and dismissed the suit. See: Marsh v. County of San Diego, 680 F.3d 1148 (9th Cir. 2012).

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