A divided Ohio Supreme Court on Thursday rejected requests for unredacted autopsy reports from the unsolved slayings of eight family members.
The court ruled 4-3 that the Pike County coroner in southern Ohio does not have to release the reports with complete information.
Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor, writing for the majority, said Ohio law regarding coroner records clearly exempts the redacted material as “confidential law enforcement investigatory records.”
The case before the court involved seven adults and a teenage boy from the Rhoden family who were found shot to death at four homes near Piketon, in rural southern Ohio, on April 22, 2016.
Heavily redacted versions of the autopsy reports released last year showed all but one of the victims were shot multiple times in the head, but details about any other injuries and toxicology test results weren’t released.
Once a criminal investigation ends, confidential information in autopsy reports can become public records, but the process leading to a suspect can sometimes take time, O’Connor wrote.
“In order that justice might be delivered to all, patience may be required of some,” the chief justice said.
The Columbus Dispatch and The Cincinnati Enquirer separately sued for access to the full final autopsies. The Ohio Attorney General’s Office, which is leading the investigation, sought to shield the information, arguing that its release could compromise the investigation.
Jack Greiner, an attorney representing the newspapers, called the majority’s decision “a classic case of the court making up its mind on how it wanted the case to come out and then finding a path there.” He said the ruling sets a negative precedent that will allow police to put whatever they want under the “investigatory records” umbrella.
Dan Tierney, an Attorney General spokesman, said the office was pleased, and the killings remain under investigation.
Pike County Coroner David Kessler has also noted the victims’ relatives raised concerns about sharing details of their loved ones’ deaths.
The newspapers argued there is no evidence the full reports contain confidential information provided by law enforcement authorities, nor any evidence the autopsies were prepared with input from investigators.
The redacted reports show most victims were shot multiple times. Forty-year-old Christopher Rhoden Sr. was shot in the head, upper body and torso, according to the redacted autopsy.
Justice Sharon Kennedy, writing for the minority, said the redactions on the Rhoden autopsies are inconsistent. In some cases, she wrote, details of victims’ scars and tattoos were not redacted, while in others most or all that information was shielded.
The reports also don’t contain any information about suspects, Kennedy said.
“The majority fails to recognize that the coroner is one degree removed from those law-enforcement officials who are empowered to investigate a murder,” the justice wrote.
Other victims in the massacre included Christopher Rhoden’s ex-wife, 37-year-old Dana Rhoden; their three children, 20-year-old Clarence “Frankie” Rhoden, 16-year-old Christopher Rhoden Jr. and 19-year-old Hanna Rhoden; Frankie Rhoden’s fiancee, 20-year-old Hannah Gilley; and a cousin, 38-year-old Gary Rhoden.
The last victim to be discovered, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden, who was the brother of Christopher Rhoden Sr., died of a single gunshot.
Authorities suspect there were multiple attackers who were familiar with the victims’ homes and the surrounding area. The motive remains a mystery.
The office of Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has said Christopher Rhoden Sr. had “a large-scale marijuana growing operation,” leading some to speculate the killings were drug-related.