Steamboat Springs The Routt County commissioners agreed Tuesday to fund a supplemental budget item for the Routt County Coroner’s Office allowing the county to reimburse the Steamboat Pilot & Today for $10,287.85 in legal fees.
Those fees stem from the newspaper’s successful defense of a lawsuit filed by the coroner seeking to block the release of an autopsy report under the Colorado Open Records Act. However, the commissioners expressed some misgivings.
Asked by commission Chairman Tim Corrigan how the matter would be handled if the commissioners decided not to approve the supplemental budget, County Attorney John Merrill, who was not involved directly in the lawsuit, said an evidentiary hearing would be held in front of a district court judge. The judge would determine whether or not the court should have allowed the newspaper to have the autopsy report in the death of 3-year-old Austin Davis in March.
“That would almost require a reversal,” of the judge’s original decision to release the report, Merrill replied. “We’re not in a very good position.”
Commissioner Doug Monger wondered if it was routine for losing plaintiffs in a suit of this nature to have to pay the defendants’ legal fees.
“The awarding of attorney fees is pretty normal?” Monger asked Merrill.
“It’s not only normal, it’s almost required,” Merrill said, “There are a few defenses.”
The autopsy report suggested that Davis may have died from neglect, and since he was found unresponsive in a cabin at a local campground, his mother, Meghan McKeon, has been charged with two counts of felony child abuse resulting in death.
The case remains under investigation, and District Attorney Brett Barkey told the commissioners Monday he asked Coroner Rob Ryg to file the suit against the newspaper because he felt the details of the autopsy report could influence witnesses that were yet to be interviewed.
Also on Monday, he said his Chief Deputy District Attorney Matt Karzen consulted with Steamboat Pilot & Today Editor Lisa Schlichtman about the newspaper’s position on the autopsy report, and Barkey had personally discussed it with reporter Matt Stensland.
Corrigan said he wanted to hear more about the newspaper’s motives in filing for the autopsy report to be unsealed under the Colorado Open Records Act.
“While I’m totally supportive of transparency and the public’s right to know, I’d still like to have a discussion with individuals at the Pilot and have them explain why they felt there was a public need to know the gruesome details of Austin Davis’ death,” he said.
Invited to step forward, Steamboat Pilot & Today Publisher Suzanne Schlicht said: “I don’t think our position was well represented by the district attorney yesterday, and I know your agenda is tight today, but I’m absolutely open to discussion,” in the future.
Commissioner Steve Ivancie said it’s important for the county to avoid similar situations in the future.
“So this basically ends up being a very expensive lesson,” he said. “I’m concerned we learn from this and try to avoid this in the future. There’s two parties here, and I’d like to see a little more understanding here if it ever happens again.”
To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email tross@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1