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Archive for Wednesday, March 31, 2004

High court protects postmortem photos of Clinton lawyer

March 31, 2004

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— The Supreme Court barred the release of police photographs of former deputy White House counsel Vincent Foster Jr.'s body Tuesday, ruling unanimously that the privacy of Foster's family outweighed an effort to find out whether his July 1993 death by gunshot was not a suicide.

Setting forth a new test to govern release of postmortem pictures and documents held by the government, the court said surviving family members were covered by a provision of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that exempted from disclosure law enforcement records that could invade personal privacy. Officials can withhold information to protect a grieving family, the court ruled, unless the requester has good evidence that disclosure might help uncover official wrongdoing.

Tuesday's ruling interpreted only federal and not state law.

In this case, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court that Allan Favish, a lawyer in California who believes the government covered up the true circumstances of Foster's death, had no such evidence.

"It would be quite extraordinary to say that we must ignore the fact that five different inquiries into the Foster matter reached the same conclusion," Kennedy wrote. Kennedy was referring to investigations by the FBI, a Senate committee, a House committee and independent counsels Robert Fiske and Kenneth Starr. Each confirmed the U.S. Park Police's finding that Foster, who served former President Bill Clinton, killed himself in Fort Marcy Park.

The case put the court firmly on the side of grieving families in a case in which not only Favish but major media associations argued for full disclosure. Citing lower-court opinions that blocked disclosure of President John F. Kennedy's autopsy X-rays and photos and an audiotape of the Challenger Space Shuttle astronauts' last words, Kennedy wrote sympathetically of the Fosters' wish to "secure their own refuge from a sensation-seeking culture."

The Fosters were backed by a brief from Teresa Earnhardt, widow of race car driver Dale Earnhardt, who has been fighting in Florida's state courts to block media access to the pictures of her husband's body after a fatal car crash. Florida reporters were seeking the photos as part of research into NASCAR safety rules.

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