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Colo. House committee passes bill to close books on minors’ autopsy reports

Author: Joey Bunch - May 3, 2018 - Updated: May 10, 2018

Trump portrait(Photo by Joey Bunch/Colorado Politics)

Legislation to close the public record on minors’ autopsy reports passed the Colorado House Thursday afternoon after a debate about the pain of grieving families  and holding accountable the system that is supposed to protect children and investigate their deaths.

Senate Bill 223 would automatically seal the public record of those younger than 18, except for families, government-sanctioned review boards, organ donation groups and civil or criminal lawyers with a direct involvement.

The House committee amended the bill that would allow outside investigators, including the media, to go to court to verify themselves as a “bonafide research project.” Currently coroners and other public agencies can go to court to seal records under certain cases. In closing remarks, legislators said the bill amended further in the last four days of the session, before voting to pass it 8-3.

Rep. Yeulin Willett said there was no urgency to pass this bill this session, and he thought it needed a lot more work.

“We’re doing this on the fly,” he told the committee. “We don’t do our best work in the last week of session. We have an important matter, but not urgent. We’ve been going along for decades with the court protecting us.”

The legislation passed the state Senate 32-3 on April 19. The bill still has to pass the House with enough time to return to the Senate, since it was amended. The Senate can either accept the House changes or go to a conference committee to work out a compromise both chambers can vote on before the session expires at midnight.

“Basically we’re talking about documents that contain the most painful words that will ever be written in a parent’s life.” said Rep. Matt Gray, D-Broomfield, one of the bill’s House sponsors.

Those records allow non-government watchdogs and the press the ability to find reasons why children die, include child abuse and public health. In 2012, for example, the Denver Post and 9News used autopsy reports to investigate failings of the Department of Human Services for a series called “Failed to Death,” which led to legislative reform and committees that are still doing work on the issue today.

Rep. Terri Carver, R-Colorado Springs, said government agencies already do “fairly extensive collection of data” that serve the public interest. But opponents testified that those reports don’t always provide the information that breaks new ground and informs public policy and scientific research.

The Colorado Coroners Association is asking for the legislation citing privacy for families and teen suicides. But critics of the bill said it would take away a level of public oversight and accountability for coroners, law enforcement and others

“It’s not necessary in order to protect children from harm to allow the detailed medical records of deceased children to be available to anyone ho would like to see them, whether for noble reason or for a very non-noble reason,” Gray said.

Robert Bux, the coroner for El Paso County, said nearly all other medical records are considered private in Colorado. He said it is very difficult to seal a record through the courts. He said having the information in the public can lessen grief for parents and cut down on public exposure of suicides that can cause “copycats.”

There is a process in place now where coroners and law enforcement can seal records and have a judge balance the need to do so.

“As it is now, it’s very difficult to get those sealed,” Bux said of autopsy reports. “In terms of judges, the balancing that is done often is not very consistent.”

Jeffrey Roberts, executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, and Nicole Vap, the director of investigations at 9News, cited other cases in which journalists used autopsy reports to find botched investigations by coroners, police and social service agencies, including the Jon Benet Ramsey case in Boulder, as well as culpability in police shootings.

“I know it’s a system that warrants ongoing scrutiny,” Vap told the committee. “Keeping autopsy reports from the public would be, in the words of a Steamboat Today editorial, ‘Hiding in a dark closet the mortal peril that young children sometime face. That would be a mistake,’ the editorial says, ‘because bringing the tragedy to light is one of the best ways to motivate society to bring those protections for children at risk.'”

Stephanie Villafuerte, a lawyer who is the state’s child protection ombudsman, proposed allowing research organizations, including the media, to ask the courts for access to information. She was neutral on the bill. She said withholding autopsy reports would not stem the information about suicides or crimes into a community.

“I think we’re naive to believe autopsy reports are the only source of information that informs us about violence with children in our community,” she said. “The truth of the matter is I live in a rather small community where we’ve had several teenaged suicides. And that is in our community. This is in our local papers. It’s in our schools. It is with our teachers. That, to me, wouldn’t give me a reason to support this particular bill.

“Information is information, and an autopsy report is but one of many sources of information.”

Limiting autopsy reports won’t stop people from talking about horrific crimes or stop the media from reporting on them, Villafuerte said.

Larry Ryckman of the Denver Post and Kevin Vaughan from 9News told the committee that the press uses its best judgment on the public’s need to know balanced against ethics and good taste, and the media chooses not to release information if it fails to meet that community standard.

Vaughn said he has been a reporter in Colorado and for 30 years and treats people the way he would want to be treated if someone came to talk to him about the loss of a loved one.

“The vast majority of journalists I have worked with over my career are thoughtful people who try very hard to get these things right every day,” he said.

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch

Joey Bunch is the senior political correspondent for Colorado Politics. He has a 31-year career in journalism, including the last 15 in Colorado. He was part of the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013 and is a two-time Pulitzer finalist. His resume includes covering high school sports, the environment, the casino industry and civil rights in the South, as well as a short stint at CNN.