Proposed law would limit access to juvenile autopsy records
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A piece of legislation being considered by state lawmakers aims to keep juvenile autopsy reports from being made available to the public, including the media.
The lawmakers who introduced the bill have expressed concerns over the privacy of families of children who have died. Those against the bill include media advocates, who have cited past instances where juvenile autopsy reports played a crucial role in reporting on cases that included the JonBenet Ramsey murder, the Columbine High School shootings and the Aurora movie theater shootings.
In Steamboat Springs, juvenile autopsy records were used to help report on the death of 3-year-old Austin Davis, who died March 27, 2014.
The Routt County Coroner’s Office sued the Steamboat Pilot & Today in an effort to not release the autopsy report, which eventually showed the boy died from extreme dehydration after his mother Meghan McKeon left him home alone for four days.
Juvenile autopsy reports can currently be withheld if it is determined disclosing the documents would cause “substantial injury to the public interest.” A judge determined that threat did not exist, and the Steamboat Pilot & Today prevailed in obtaining autopsy report records for Austin Davis. His mother was subsequently sentenced to 22 years in prison.
Autopsy reports are routinely requested by the media.
In a 2012 investigative report, 9NEWS and The Denver Post used juvenile autopsy reports to show 72 of 175 children involved in the child welfare system died from child abuse in a five-year period.
The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition reported last week that Colorado’s county coroners have requested the Colorado Open Records Act be revised to exclude the release of juvenile records.
“The families feel stigmatized, and they feel like every time it comes up, they have to relive the whole experience,” El Paso County Coroner Robert Bux said during testimony April 16 before the Senate Judiciary Committee. If the autopsy report is “out in the public domain,” he told legislators, “it’s very hard on family privacy.”
Boulder County Coroner Emma Hall testified she believed autopsy reports should be treated more like medical records, which are kept confidential.
“I think it’s important to try to extend that courtesy to the families of minors who have died,” she said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee passed Senate Bill 18-223 in a 4-0 vote.
Dylan Roberts, a prosecutor who represents Steamboat in Colorado House District 26, said he believes lawmakers are aware of the concerns expressed by the media.
“When I am not a legislator, I am a prosecutor and advocate for victims and their families every day and strongly believe in protecting victim’s rights,” Roberts wrote in an email. “I cannot even imagine the pain a family is subjected to when their child’s autopsy is scrutinized by the public and do believe the state should do more to ensure their privacy if that privacy is being subjected to unnecessary intrusion.”
Roberts said he believes lawmakers are willing to further engage with the media to balance their interests.
“I do not think the state government should do anything to block investigative journalism that benefits the public good,” Roberts said. “As a member of the House Judiciary Committee (where this bill will be heard), I look forward to that collaborative process at the committee hearing in the coming weeks. I think we can find a good balance for both sides.”
District Attorney Brett Barkey, who fought against the release of the Austin Davis autopsy reports in Steamboat, said he supports revising the law.
“This bill takes an important step in protecting such records from disclosures that could compromise the integrity of homicide investigations and prosecutions for juvenile victims,” Barkey said in an email.
Nicole Vap, the director of investigative journalism at 9NEWS, told the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition that the law would make if difficult to scrutinize how coroners do their jobs.
“We shouldn’t have to take people’s word for things,” Vap said. “You should be able to read the documents. How can you hold the coroners accountable if you can’t read what they did to draw their conclusions?”