Who owns the D.C. Madam's suicide note?

Answers to your questions about the news.
May 6 2008 5:40 PM

Who Owns a Suicide Note?

How the D.C. Madam's last words made it into the newspaper.

Deborah Jeane Palfrey. Click image to expand.
"D.C. Madam" Deborah Jeane Palfrey

Deborah Jeane Palfrey, the so-called "D.C. Madam," wrote suicide notes to her mother and younger sister before hanging herself last Thursday. On Monday morning, police in Tarpon Springs, Fla., released these documents to the media. Who controls the contents of a suicide note? *

Either the sheriff or the medical examiner. Law enforcement agencies must investigate all unnatural deaths, including suicides, and notes are treated as evidence. Sheriffs or coroners often attach these documents to their official reports. That opens the door for an enterprising journalist to file a request for the documents under the Freedom of Information Act, which grants public access to government records.

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Some states, like Washington and Ohio, have specific provisions to block the publication of suicide notes. According to Washington case law (PDF), suicide notes are exempt from public examination. After the sheriff and medical examiner file their reports, the originals are released to family members as personal property. In Ohio, suicide notes as well as preliminary autopsy findings and coroner's photographs are confidential. A journalist may submit a written request to view these documents for research purposes, but he can't copy the findings.

Back in January 2001, former Enron Vice Chairman Cliff Baxter shot himself in his car, leaving behind a seven-sentence note addressed to his wife. Baxter's family argued that disclosing the contents of the note would violate their right to privacy. But the Texas attorney general ruled that Baxter had become a public figure and that the note was public record. In 1996, an admiral in the Navy named Jeremy Boorda wrote two notes before killing himself: one to his wife and another to his sailors. After journalists filed a FOIA request, the Navy released a report of its investigation but argued that publishing the notes would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Preston Burton of Orrick, John Langbein of Yale University, and Jon Mills of the University of Florida's Levin College of Law.

Correction, May 7, 2008: The article originally asked who owns a suicide note. Technically, the note (and copyright to its contents) belongs to Deborah Palfrey or to her estate. So if her mother inherited her estate, then her mother owns the note. But the sheriff or medical examiner's office has initial, de facto control over the dissemination of the note. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Juliet Lapidos is a staff editor at the New York Times.

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