Marin County Sheriff’s Department Defends Release of “Graphic” Details Surrounding Robin Williams’ Death

Last Monday, the world learned that beloved actor-comedian Robin Williams had died of suspected suicide by asphyxiation. Then on Tuesday, at a Marin County Sheriff’s press conference, it found out exactly how he did it, including the object used, the condition and position of the body, and even the fact that he had previously tried to cut his wrists with a pocketknife. Now, some are slamming the Marin County Sheriff’s Department for revealing that level of detail to the public.

Some fans complained that the details were an affront to the family’s stated wishes for privacy. Others, like Didi Hirsch Medical Health Services professional, Lyn Morris, worried that they could spawn copycat suicides.

On Wednesday, Marin County Sheriff’s Lt. Keith Boyd defended the move, saying the department had no choice.

“Frankly, it would have been our personal preference to withhold a lot of what we disclosed to the press [on Tuesday], but the California Public Records Act does not give us that kind of latitude,” he said.

Los Angeles County chief coroner Craig Harvey isn’t surprised by the criticism Marin County has received. He recalled similar complaints after the death of Michael Jackson in 2009. But the details are “fair game,” he said, because the coroner’s office is a public records office. 

“Coroners are not required to provide details by press conference,” said Terry Francke who heads the open government group, Californians Aware. However, he added that the sheriff’s department chose to get it all out in the open at once, rather than having the details inevitably trickle out bit by bit.

Because Marin County contracts with a private company for its autopsies, Williams’ autopsy was performed at a government-run facility in Napa County. This was done to decrease the likelihood of photo leaks and other breaches of privacy.

Nevertheless, known details surrounding the death are only expected to multiply, as the department says it will likely be required to release the 911 call and fire dispatch tapes soon. According to Boyd, the sheriff’s office is discussing possible exemptions to the Public Records Act with county counsel in the hopes of preventing their release.

Read more about the controversy here.