New York City authorities will not disclose the cause of death for Zachery Tims, the founding pastor of New Destiny Christian Center (NDCC), until a court decision is made regarding a challenge from Tims' mother against the NYC medical examiner's longstanding policy of making such information available to the public.
At the request of the Hon. Cynthia S. Kern, Ave Maria Brennan, Senior Counsel with the City's Administrative Law Department, agreed that the medical examiner's office would refrain from disclosing the cause and manner of Tims' death until a decision had been reached.
In a hearing held in Kern's chambers Wednesday morning in the New York State Supreme Court in lower Manhattan, attorney Ricardo E. Oquendo, Esq. and Brennan made their arguments concerning the New York City Office of Chief Medical Examiner's decades-old practice of publicly disclosing the cause of death of individuals.
The City was sued on Oct. 7 by the pastor's mother, who is the representative of Tims' estate. Madeline Tims has legally challenged the medical examiners' right to disclose such information, a practice that is neither expressly provided for nor prohibited by New York legislation, as was confirmed by both attorneys Wednesday.
"Nowhere is it written that the medical examiner is permitted or not permitted from disclosing cause of death upon public inquiry," Brennan said in court.
Kern is to decide whether Madeline Tims has grounds to challenge the procedure the city has been practicing for years. Until that decision is made, the public will not be informed about the cause of death, it was agreed.
Oquendo told The Christian Post he thought the hearing went well and that he believes he has a strong case. He added that Madeline Tims' case, although a matter of personal privacy, is unprecedented and could potentially affect other cases that are similar in nature.
The attorney's argument is that if the City cannot disclose the autopsy report, a document, to the public, it also should not be allowed to disclose the contents of the autopsy, such as information on the cause and manner of death.
Upon being sued, the New York Medical Examiner's Office issued a statement from the City's legal department, as quoted in The Orlando Sentinnel:
"The Medical Examiner's Office does not release autopsy reports to the public. Rather, it discloses the cause and manner of death upon public inquiry," Brennan said in the October statement. "The City feels it's important to make this information available to the public. The Law Department will defend this challenge to the medical examiner's ability to do so."
Brennan expressed that argument to Kern Wednesday.
"The overriding thing is that we're not talking about documents, we're talking about information," the attorney said. "We're not required to disclose information to the public. We may. We have that authority."
Defendants listed in the case are: The City of New York; the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene of the City of New York; Thomas Farley, M.D., as Commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene of the City of New York; the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner; and Charles S. Hirsch, M.D., as Chief Medical Examiner.
During the hearing, Brennan said that it is a longstanding practice of the agency to release this information and that "medical examiners passionately feel that it is important that this information be disclosed to the people of New York" no matter the status of the deceased.
"We don't decide who's important, who's not important; what's newsworthy, what's not newsworthy," she said.
It was also brought up during the hearing on Tims' temporary injunction against the medical examiner's office that agencies across the nation often disclose the cause of death for individuals. At issue in the case is whether agencies in New York City need express authority to make such disclosures.
Earlier, on Oct. 6, Ellen Borkove, a spokesperson for the New York medical examiner's office, told CP that the cause and manner of death – though not the actual contents of the reports – can be made available to the public according to New York law, suggesting that the office is willing to disclose the result of the Florida minister's toxicology test, which would make it clear whether or not the pastor was under the influence of drugs at the time of his death.
Asked for a reaction after making the arguments Wednesday, the NYC Law Department emailed CP a statement from Brennan: "The court heard oral arguments in this case today. We are confident that the judge will weigh all legal arguments. We affirm that the City has a right to release cause and manner of death upon public inquiry."
Oquendo said the court will be "prudent and deliberate" in coming to a conclusion, which means Kern's decision would not come right away.
Tims was found dead in his room at the W Hotel in Times Square on Aug. 12.
It has been alleged that drugs may have been involved. Soon after the body was found, a law enforcement official reportedly disclosed that a white powdery substance believed to be narcotics was discovered in Tims' pocket.
The examiner's office was prepared to publish a press release on Friday, Oct. 7, to inform the public as to the cause and manner of Tims' death, but the temporary restraining order prevented the agency from doing so.
On Oct. 6, Oquendo was granted a temporary restraining order by Justice Kern against the medical examiner's office, barring representatives of that office from "making any oral or written statements or comments to the public or responding in any matter to inquiries from the public" concerning the NDCC pastor's death.
The case has been followed by many members of the Christian community because it raises a general question about Christian ethics. Should the toxicology results show that drugs were involved in Tims' death, it would be a blow to his congregation and the legacy of the church. However, many might ask if Tims' family has a right to conceal the cause of the minister's death. He was a popular televangelist and an important spiritual leader. If he died from drug abuse, church members would likely want to know.
"Why do Christians love to 'hide' their little secrets? Nothing is hidden before God. Why not use this tragedy for good rather than covering up," a CP reader commented in October.
Some observers seem to share that opinion, suggesting that the very fact that Mrs. Tims is fighting to keep the cause of death private, is very revealing.
The charismatic preacher battled drug addiction before becoming a Christian, which he described in a memoir called It's Never Too Late, which tells "how a teenage criminal found his divine destiny and became a successful millionaire and pastor of a thriving church," according to the book cover.
Bishop T.D. Jakes, who delivered the Tims' eulogy during his Aug. 21 funeral, insinuated that Tims struggled with personal problems.
"I thought I was the only one who knew how unhappy Zach was, how broken he was, how afraid he was if anybody was to see any flaw in him," Jakes said. "He tried hard to heal himself, to fix himself … I don't know what happened in that room in New York, but I can only hope that as Zach was dying, Dr. Tims stood up," Jakes said.
The Christian community has also been expecting news about who will become the new leading pastor of the Apopka, Fla., megachurch.
Tims established NDCC along with his ex-wife, Riva Tims, in 1996. The couple shares four children.
Nicola Menzie contributed to this report.