Colorado bill closing youth autopsies to public advances
May 8, 2018
DENVER — Colorado lawmakers are on the verge of approving a bill removing autopsy reports involving minors from public documents available under the Colorado Open Records Act, acceding to coroners' arguments that releasing the reports is an invasion of privacy for survivors and could induce copycat teen suicides.
State press organizations oppose the bill, warning it will hamper reporting on suspicious youth deaths, the operations of government child welfare programs and the work of holding elected coroners accountable.
The late-session bill was approved overwhelmingly by both chambers — 63-2 in the Democrat-led House and 32-3 in the Republican-led Senate. The House's vote Tuesday sends the bill back to the Senate, which, after considering minor amendments, is expected to send it to Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper.
Hickenlooper hasn't taken a position on the bill, spokeswoman Jacque Montgomery said.
The Colorado Coroners Association backed the bill, insisting its members want to spare surviving families the trauma of having details on their loved ones' deaths released to the public.
El Paso County Coroner Robert Bux testified the bill would help stop a "contagion" of vulnerable teens reading about peer suicides or homicides on social media and harming themselves. Democratic Rep. Matt Gray, a bill co-sponsor and former deputy district attorney in suburban Broomfield, said youth autopsies don't "need to be the subject of internet fodder."
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Witnesses testifying for the bill didn't produce a documented case of a copycat suicide or homicide directly contributing to the death or harm of a minor. One witness did testify that reporters confronted a grieving relative with an autopsy report in a grisly 1997 kidnap-murder of a 14-year-old girl.
"Moral values need to be at play here," said the witness, Tim Lopez.
Randy Gorton, president of the Coroners Association, has said he knows of one confirmed copycat suicide case — documented by a fellow coroner — but declined to provide details.
News media representatives testified the bill not only would affect the public's need to know about suspicious child deaths but also flips the legal burden to citizens to convince a judge a report should be released.
The records act makes clear government agencies are caretakers of public documents and bear the burden of why they should be withheld.
The bill allows anyone to petition a district court for access to an autopsy report only "on the grounds that disclosure constitutes a significant public benefit."
Representatives of The Denver Post and KUSA-TV testified the bill would thwart public interest work such as "Failed to Death," a joint 2012 investigation that led to reforms in Colorado's youth services system. Reporters used autopsy reports to determine that 72 children who died of abuse or neglect between 2007 and 2012 had been known by child protective workers.
Autopsies also can shed light on troubling instances in which police confrontations with youth lead to a death, said Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.
"That is a salient point, given the headlines of the last two or three years involving regrettable instances of young people being shot by police officers under doubtful circumstances," LoMonte said. "When a case like that comes up, I think the public will be clamoring for an autopsy report."
Under Colorado law, surviving families and other parties can ask a judge to seal a minor's autopsy report. The bill allows parents and legal guardians, law enforcement, criminal defendants and various state agencies to access reports, as well as certain tissue or organ banks.
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