Pilot & Today sued after requesting autopsy report for 3-year-old boy
May 7, 2014
Steamboat Springs — Steamboat Pilot & Today is fighting a lawsuit brought by the Routt County Coroner’s Office that seeks to keep autopsy reports secret for the 3-year-old boy who died March 27 in Steamboat Springs.
On April 16, Steamboat Pilot & Today submitted a public records request to the Coroner's Office asking for the autopsy and pathology reports related to the death of Austin Davis. Two days later, Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg, who is being represented by the Routt County District Attorney’s Office, filed an application in 14th Judicial District Court asking the court to order the coroner not to release the records. On Wednesday, Steamboat Pilot & Today, through Denver attorney Chris Beall, filed its opposition with the court.
Officials have not disclosed how Austin died, but Austin's grandmother, Charity O'Konski, said after a court hearing Wednesday that police told her Austin died from "extreme dehydration." Police believe Austin's mother, 24-year-old Meghan McKeon, might have left Austin home alone for four days. McKeon lived with her son at a campground in a cabin that had no running water. McKeon has been charged with two counts of felony child abuse resulting in death.
This is the second time the Pilot & Today has pursued legal avenues to get information about the case. The newspaper first asked Judge James Garrecht to unseal McKeon's arrest warrant. Despite objections from both the prosecution and defense, Garrecht ordered the arrest warrant be unsealed. He wrote that public access to the records is controlled by the constitutional right to access to judicial records under the Colorado and United States constitutions, and specifically the First Amendment.
"It is regrettable that the district attorney and the coroner are holding our citizens' right to access these records in disregard," Steamboat Pilot & Today Publisher Suzanne Schlicht said. "They are using taxpayer resources and dollars in a lawsuit to deny access to information that is granted to these very taxpayers and citizens in the Colorado and U.S. constitutions.”
The Colorado Open Records Act allows a court to restrict disclosure of autopsy reports if the court finds that disclosure would cause "substantial injury to the public interest."
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In the district attorney's argument on behalf of Coroner Rob Ryg, he contends that releasing the test results would "expose as yet unidentified or interviewed potential witnesses to investigative facts, which have a high potential for tainting their recollections and perceptions." The coroner also claims releasing the information could taint the jury pool, and a trial would have to be held elsewhere. Furthermore, the coroner contends releasing the information would have a high potential for "heightening public condemnation" of McKeon.
"Publicly disseminated threats against a defendant, in a pending criminal matter, which are injected into the public discourse by the newspaper, constitute a substantial injury to the public's interest in the orderly, secure and safe adjudication of criminal prosecutions, and it demeans the integrity of that process," the DA Office’s court filing states.
In its response to the lawsuit, the Pilot & Today stated Colorado lawmakers have specifically determined that autopsy reports are releasable except in extraordinary circumstances that lawmakers could not have foreseen. Such was the case with the Columbine High School massacre and requests by the media for autopsy reports. The Colorado Court of Appeals determined the "overwhelming grief caused by the nature and extent of this tragedy constituted an extraordinary situation that the General Assembly could not have identified in advance."
In response to claims that releasing the cause of death would increase public condemnation of McKeon, the Pilot & Today contends lawmakers already balanced this risk when they determined autopsy reports should be public records.
The Pilot & Today also disputes the concern that releasing the information will require a change of venue for the trial.
"Not only was such a risk clearly within legislators' awareness, it is in fact a mechanism for preserving the public's right of access to judicial records that both the United States Supreme Court and the Colorado Supreme Court have explicitly endorsed," the response states.
The Pilot & Today has requested an expedited hearing. A date has not yet been set.