Pilot & Today sued after requesting autopsy report for 3-year-old boy

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— 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.”

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.

To reach Matt Stensland, call 970-871-4247, email mstensland@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @SBTStensland

Comments

scott bideau 4 months, 3 weeks ago

And knowing the autopsy results would benefit the public how exactly?

7

bill schurman 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Surely the results of the autopsy will be made public at the preliminary hearing.

1

Scott Wedel 4 months, 3 weeks ago

And the headline is simply wrong. SB Today is not being sued. The paper's request is being transferred to a court hearing.

"Pilot & Today Sued after Requesting Autopsy Report" is such a wrong and misleading headline that is should be retracted and paper should issue an apology.

Paper may have a right to publish it, but paper better be right on the consequences. There is no public importance in publishing it a few days sooner, but if it being published messes up the investigation then that is a heck of a responsibility.

4

Pat West 4 months, 3 weeks ago

This is a horrific crime against an innocent child.

Pilot, please be patient and let the justice system throw the book at her before working to release the awful details of this crime. While you may feel we have a right to know the details, Little Austin has a right to justice that should override your morbid couriousity.

6

Melinda Clark 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I cannot imagine how "citizens' rights" are being upheld by the Pilot's gaining access to the autopsy. This tragedy is already beyond comprehension. It'll be addressed in court. How will our community be served by the Pilot insisting on printing the results of the autopsy ASAP? And Scott W is right: there is nothing in the article that validates the headline. Poor form, Pilot.

6

Lisa Schlichtman 4 months, 3 weeks ago

This case is a lawsuit brought by the coroner. The D.A.’s office is acting as the coroner’s lawyer. The Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) allows this kind of lawsuit, which is called a reverse-CORA because it is an effort to prohibit disclosure. The case is a civil proceeding in District Court. 

2

Jim Kelley 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Suzanne Schlicht,

I do not feel the my citizens rights are being violated by not having the exact details of this horrible crime yet. Please do not use and abuse the rights you refer to for your disgusting desire to "scoop" this story. This is the most abhorrent behavior I have seen from the Pilot. If you care about justice for this child,then back off!

4

rhys jones 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I agree totally -- stop forcing the expenditure of public monies and/or diverting resources, defending a frivolous action, all in your pursuit of gonzo journalism. The gruesome details are not necessary to public knowledge to affix blame or punish the responsible individual. Maybe I don't WANT to know exactly how the poor child died.

3

Jeff Kibler 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I've read many comments calling for more investigative reporting. I seriously doubt this is what the commentators had in mind.

2

Ken Mauldin 4 months, 3 weeks ago

The circumstances and specifics of this poor child's death are newsworthy by almost any standard. As a media organization, I don't see this request as poor judgement on the part of the Pilot. If it bleeds it leads because drama and controversy sells newspapers and generates web traffic. Plain and simple.

It's for the Court to decide if the disclosure would compromise the trial and, if the information is released, it's up to the news-consumer to decide if they want to read the story and learn the details.

3

Jeff Kibler 4 months, 3 weeks ago

Ken, I think our esteemed fourth estate could take a step back and be a bit less maudlin.

1

Scott Wedel 4 months, 3 weeks ago

I think it is credible risk stated by the district attorney that they have an active investigation that could be affected by public knowledge of the coroner's report.

We don't have the greatest DA or investigators and it seems entirely plausible there are things they have yet to do that should be done before important info such as a coroner's report is released to the public.

Hopefully, tying up the release in the courts will give them enough time to do what is needed before the report is publicly released.

Paper's headline is still wrong stating that they are being sued.

2

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