Officials at the state medical examiner's office say that even though their report on the death of homicide victim Julie Mitchell is a public record â€” and that the law may require it to be open to public viewing â€” they don't want to release it too soon for fear of compromising the investigation into her death.
â€œIt was the decision yesterday (Wednesday) not to release anything in the file,â€ Cherokee Ballard, spokeswoman for the agency, said Thursday.
â€œThe premature release of the report could impede the investigation.â€
But Ballard conceded the state's Open Records Act indicates the contents of the report, even though it's not complete, may be public records now.
The body of Julie Mitchell, 34, was found Nov. 2 in a closet at her home at 640 NW 150. The case has drawn a lot of attention over the circumstances surrounding her death.
Her 1-year-old daughter was found in the home, uninjured but covered in her mother's blood.
The death was initially called in as a suicide by one of her stepsons.
Her husband is heavily involved in gambling, some of which may be illegal, police said.
An anonymous letter given to select metro-area television stations reportedly contained information about the case.
Publicity on Mitchell's death has made the news media keen to learn new details, with most attention lately focused on the medical examiner's report. Multiple news media organizations, including The Oklahoman, formally have requested the autopsy report.
But even if the report is public record, Ballard said, Andrew Sibley, the interim chief medical examiner, has decided the integrity of the investigation takes precedence.
In a prepared statement released Wednesday, Ballard said: â€œIt is Dr. Sibley's belief that the premature release of further details may interfere with the ongoing investigation and subsequent prosecution.â€
On Thursday, she summed it up, saying, â€œWe absolutely do not want to mess up an investigation.â€
Open to everyone or no one
Oklahoma City police are investigating Mitchell's death. No arrests have been made.
DNA samples have been taken from Mitchell's husband and requested of his sons and one other person, the husband's lawyer said.
In terms of the medical examiner's report, a police spokesman said detectives have not seen it. The spokesman said it would be bad if the report is published in the news media before investigators see it.
â€œThey won't release it to anyone,â€ Oklahoma City police Capt. Patrick Stewart said.
â€œThey won't even release it to the homicide unit until it's done.â€
Stewart said enforcement of the Open Records Act should be applied equally and not favor one party over another.
â€œIt's either open, or it's not,â€ he said. â€œIt can't be just open to the media and not everyone else.
â€œWe want consistency in how the Open Records Act is followed.â€
Stewart likened this case to how police release or withhold crime reports. Unapproved reports aren't given out until they're complete, which can take anywhere from a day to a week in most cases.
But medical examiner's reports often take much longer to finish. Ballard said a file like the Mitchell case might not be finished for three to six months.
Stewart said detectives won't see the medical examiner's report until it's finished.
Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater, whose office would be responsible for prosecuting the case, said the report should be withheld until it's complete, saying the Open Records Act gives investigating agencies leeway in when such reports can be made public.
â€œI completely agree with Dr. Sibley's decision not to release any information from the autopsy report until a final report is issued,â€ Prater said.
What's in the report?
Few significant developments in the Mitchell case have been made public lately, but the contents of the medical examiner's file might include facts that could shed light on what happened.
The report will include a diagram of the body, which in turn will show where Mitchell's injuries were and how many injuries she had, Ballard said.
Also in the report will be a physician's report, which could include more detailed descriptions of her injuries or any toxicology findings, such as substances that may have been in the victim's bloodstream. Other facts could include the address of the victim, her age or the cause of death.
Many of those details, though, can be sensitive to the investigation, Stewart said.
Precise information about how a person was killed could be things that only investigators and the killer or killers would know, he said. By keeping that information secret, it helps detectives separate bad information from clues that could help solve the case.
Legal advice sought
Pressure to release the report â€” and to withhold it â€” prompted the medical examiner's office to seek the state attorney general's opinion on what to do, Ballard said.
Part of the reason goes back to another high-profile case that occurred last year.
On Aug. 23, 2009, Carol Daniels, pastor at Anadarko's Christ Holy Sanctified Church, was killed inside the church building.
The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation had sought to keep the medical examiner's report secret, citing the same concerns expressed by Oklahoma City investigators now.
But the initial autopsy report was released through an Open Records request, revealing the pastor's hair had been set on fire and her head nearly cut off. Daniels' mutilated and nude body was found in what appeared to be a â€œcrucifix positionâ€ behind the altar of the church.
The case remains unsolved.
Ballard said the medical examiner's office sought legal advice on the Mitchell case because of fears that a similar disclosure could hamper Oklahoma City detectives' efforts.
Ballard would not say what the attorney general's office told them.
Charlie Price, spokesman for Attorney General Drew Edmondson, said he couldn't discuss the details of that request.
â€œWe gave them our legal opinion, and we did that as their lawyers,â€ Price said. â€œSo we think this falls under attorney-client privilege, so we can't discuss that unless they waive their attorney-client rights.â€