Court in Watts case is wrong venue to decide access to autopsies, media groups and CFOIC say

UPDATE: On Oct. 12, Judge Marcelo Kopcow denied the prosecution’s motion to keep the autopsies from the public, agreeing with the assertion by news media and CFOIC that a separate legal action is needed if the coroner seeks to withhold the records under CORA.

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

A judge should deny the prosecutors’ motion to keep autopsy reports from the public in the Frederick triple homicide case because the criminal court lacks jurisdiction to decide that question, a media coalition and the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition argued on Thursday.

In a motion filed in Weld County District Court, attorney Steve Zansberg wrote that a separate legal action is required under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) if county Coroner Carl Blesch seeks to withhold the autopsy reports on Shanann Watts and her two daughters, whom police say were killed by Shanann’s husband, Christopher Watts.

As the custodian of the reports, which are public records, the coroner’s office is not a criminal justice agency subject to the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act nor is it a party to the criminal prosecution, noted Zansberg, who made the argument on behalf of the Colorado Press Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, The Greeley Tribune and CFOIC.

Christopher Watts

The only way autopsy reports can lawfully be kept from a public records requester is for a judge to authorize the withholding in response to a court order sought by the coroner, wrote Zansberg, who is CFOIC’s president. A finding must be made that disclosure would “do substantial injury to the public interest.”

Zansberg added that CORA provides “the exclusive procedure by which such matters are to be resolved,” and he cited case law that records disputes must be filed in separate legal actions and not as part of any ongoing proceeding.

The Weld County coroner’s office has received approximately 20 requests for the autopsy reports on the three victims, according to an order issued by Judge Marcelo Kopcow on Sept. 26. In that order, the judge wrote that a hearing would be scheduled “to determine if public disclosure of the content of the autopsy reports would do substantial injury to the public interest.”

Until further order of the court, he added, the autopsy reports will be confidential “and not a public document.”

The bodies of Shanann Watts and her daughters, ages 3 and 4, were found in August in rural Weld County, and the official causes of death for the three victims have not been released.

In a motion filed last month, the prosecutors argued that the autopsy reports should be kept from the public until trial to avoid “tainting witnesses that have not yet been interviewed and impacting future jurors.”

Follow the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition on Twitter @CoFOIC. Like CFOIC’s Facebook page.

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