Effort to seal autopsy reports of minors draws outcry from open-records advocates

The Denver Post: Proposed legislation that would bar the public in Colorado — on privacy grounds — from viewing autopsy reports on the deaths of minors is prompting resistance from open-records advocates who say it will make it harder to uncover mistakes in the child-protection system.

The opponents, including media representatives, point to past reporting projects that relied in part on autopsy reports to hold child-protection officials accountable for failing to protect abused children who died. They also say Senate Bill 223 could complicate efforts to shed light on other issues, such as the opioid epidemic, or fatal shootings of juveniles by police and even potential flaws in police homicide investigations.

Steven Zansberg, a lawyer who has represented The Denver Post and other media outlets in open-records litigation, said the effort to close public access to all autopsy reports for minors is an overreach. He pointed out that Colorado courts already recognize that unique and extraordinary circumstances can justify the withholding of autopsy reports. Coroners can petition a court for an order exempting release of autopsies if they believe it would be against public interest, the courts have ruled.

“To create a new categorical exemption for all autopsy reports of minors is not only unnecessary and overboard, it is a disservice to the public interest,” Zansberg said in an e-mail. He added that the state’s Colorado Open Records Act “provides a strong presumption of access to such reports so that the public can hold its public servants, county coroners and other public officials who review such reports, accountable.”

County coroners are pushing the legislation, which already has passed the state Senate, and is now scheduled for consideration by the House Judiciary committee and then potentially the full House. Sen. Bob Gardner, a Republican of Colorado Springs, introduced the bill.

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