Court allows reporters to inspect slain family’s autopsies

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins - Associated Press

COLUMBUS (AP) — Reporters can view preliminary autopsy reports and photos in the still-unsolved slayings of eight Ohio family members in one of the state’s most notorious crimes, the Ohio Supreme Court said Wednesday.

The case stems from the April 2016 murder of eight family members in Pike County that remain unsolved. Up until now, the autopsies of the eight victims have been sealed.

The court ruled unanimously in favor of the Cincinnati Enquirer, saying Ohio law allows reporters to view preliminary autopsy and investigative notes and findings, and photographs.

The law governing the viewing of the information is clear, the court said in overturning a lower-court decision.

If “a journalist submits a proper request to review preliminary autopsy and investigative notes and findings, suicide notes, or photographs of the decedent made by the coroner, the coroner ‘shall’ grant the request,” the court said.

The still-unsolved case involves seven adults and a teenage boy from the Rhoden family who were found shot to death at four homes in Piketon in April 2016.

The Attorney General’s Office, which is investigating the killings, said it would make the reports and photos available for inspection Wednesday morning. Under Ohio law, reporters can only view the information and are prohibited even from taking notes.

Heavily redacted versions of the reports released in 2016 showed all but one of the victims were shot multiple times in the head. Toxicology results, which could include the use of drugs or alcohol, were blacked out for all the victims. Evidence of injuries beyond the mention of gunshot wounds was also blacked out for all the victims.

The Enquirer’s lawyer said the court made the right decision.

“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, an expert in public records law.

The high court previously ruled against releasing the autopsies as public records. Wednesday’s decision was decided under a different law that specifically regulates inspecting the records.

The victims were Christopher Rhoden Sr., 40; his 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. Three children were found unharmed.

The last victim to be discovered, 44-year-old Kenneth Rhoden, who was the brother of Christopher Rhoden Sr., died of a single gunshot.

The office of 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.

By Andrew Welsh-Huggins

Associated Press