By JAMES ANDERSON , Associated Press
DENVER — Colorado’s coroners are lobbying for a late-session bipartisan bill that would remove autopsy reports on minors’ deaths from the state’s open records act, citing a need for family privacy and the prospect of copycat youth suicides.
Press organizations are among those opposing the bill, which has cleared the state Senate and will be heard by the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. They argue it would remove the work of elected county coroners from public scrutiny and stymie reporting on such issues as the welfare of children under state supervision.
“We do not want to diminish public accountability,” said Democratic Rep. Matt Gray, a former deputy district attorney in suburban Broomfield who’s co-sponsoring the bill. At the same time, he added: “We do not want to unnecessarily drag families who have experienced tragedy through more pain.”
Autopsy reports are accessible under the Colorado Open Records Act — but can be sealed by a judge under certain conditions. Opponents most often cite “Failed to Death ,” a groundbreaking investigation of Colorado’s youth services system by The Denver Post and KUSA-TV in 2012.
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. The series led to reforms in the state system.
Coroners say protecting grief-stricken families — especially in rural areas where everyone is more likely to know one another — from reliving the deaths of loved ones with reports that may be posted on social media is paramount.
They also cite the prospect that minors who read or hear about often-grisly youth deaths by suicide, homicide or drug overdoses could replicate those tragedies. Randy Gorton, president of the Colorado Coroners Association, said he knows of one confirmed copycat suicide case — documented by a fellow coroner — but declined to provide details.
“An autopsy report is the final medical record on a deceased individual. Everything is listed that is wrong with that person, whether they hang themselves, ligatures, mental health — everything is described,” said Gorton, who was for nine years the coroner of Kit Carson County in Colorado’s eastern plains.
“You know everybody here,” Gorton said. “You are dealing with families you grew up with. And you wonder why it has to be a public record when they don’t feel it should be.”
Others liken explicitly detailed autopsy reports to personal medical records that are protected by law.
“I wholeheartedly believe that a person should have a right to privacy, including after their death,” testified Robert Glassmire, coroner in western Colorado’s Garfield County.
Opponents note that families or other parties can ask a judge to seal a minor’s autopsy report. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition cites a 1987 ruling that autopsy reports in homicides can be withheld only if their release could cause “substantial injury to the public interest.”
The bill has exceptions. Reports would be available to parents and legal guardians; law enforcement; criminal defendants; the Department of Human Services, to review child fatalities; the Division of Youth Services, to monitor its own operations; and certain tissue or organ banks vetting prospective donations.
Only three members of the 35-member Senate voted against the bill.
“It’s clear to me that it chips away at the Colorado Open Records Act,” said Sen. John Kefalas of Fort Collins, who with fellow Democrats Kerry Donovan of Vail and Andy Kerr of Lakewood voted “no.”
“I think this is an example of a bill that goes under the radar screen, and we don’t fully understand the implications.”
Gorton says he and fellow coroners are held accountable both by law enforcement and prosecutors they work with on every death. “The families we answer to also are the ones we are accountable to,” he said.