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Ohio Supreme Court Upholds Dismissal of Prisoner’s Mandamus Petition Seeking to Compel Production of Coroner’s Photographs of Murder Victim

On November 12, 2020, the Supreme Court of Ohio affirmed a district court of appeals’ dismissal of a prisoner’s petition for a writ of mandamus seeking to compel the Office of the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner (“the office”) to produce photographs and other records of the person he was convicted of murdering. The court held that coroners’ photographs are excluded from the statutory definition of “public record” and that the prisoner had not requested the other materials from the office, a perquisite for mandamus.

Ohio prisoner Willie Bandy was convicted of murdering Ray Emerson, who had been stabbed, strangled and beaten. After receiving a complete copy of Emerson’s autopsy report from the office, Bandy wrote the office requesting photographs of Emerson’s injuries. The office responded but did not provide the photographs.

Bandy filed a pro se petition for a writ of mandamus in the state district court of appeals seeking to compel staff at the office to provide photographs of Emerson’s stab wounds, X-rays of Emerson’s stab wounds, Emerson’s death certificate and a signed autopsy report.

The court dismissed the lawsuit after holding that Ohio R.C. 313.10, the coroner’s statute, expressly excluded photographs from the definition of “public record” and that the other items were not mentioned in Bandy’s letter to the office. Bandy appealed.

The Ohio Supreme Court held that the strength of Bandy’s interest in receiving the photographs — to help prove innocence — was not a factor in determining whether he was legally entitled to them. They are excluded by statute, so he is not entitled to them. His reliance on State ex rel. Fellows v. Soboslay, 1996 WL 706825 (July 26, 1996) was misplaced as it was decided under a prior statute that had no exemption for photographs.

Further, Bandy failed to request the X-rays, death certificate or a signed autopsy report in his request letter to the office, so he was not entitled to mandamus on those items. The judgment of the district court of appeals was affirmed. See: State ex rel. Bandy v. Gilson, 2020-Ohio-5222

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Related legal case

Ohio: State ex rel. Bandy v. Gilson