Judge orders release of autopsy report for 3-year-old Steamboat boy who police believe died of neglect
May 21, 2014
Steamboat Springs — A judge has ordered Routt County Coroner Rob Ryg to release the autopsy report for the 3-year-old boy who police believe died here after being neglected by his mother.
The coroner’s office sought to keep the boy’s autopsy report from the public for at least two to three more weeks because the Routt County District Attorney’s Office argued its release could harm the public interest in a fair trial here for Meghan McKeon, the boy’s mother, and heighten public condemnation of her.
The District Attorney’s office and investigators with the Steamboat Springs Police Department also contended the document’s release could compromise the testimony of witnesses in the case.
In his ruling Wednesday afternoon, 14th Judicial District Chief Judge Michael O’Hara said Ryg did not provide any evidence that the release of Austin Davis’ autopsy report would cause substantial injury to the public interest.
"It is sad. It is always emotionally charged, but it is not so unique the court should invoke some special rules that apply to the situation," O’Hara said about the child’s death. "I do want to acknowledge the privacy interests of the parents. Any parent of a child who has died would be somewhat horrified to have that very personal private information released to the public forum. It is a right I have given weight to, but I find it cannot outweigh the public interest."
McKeon has been charged with two counts of felony child abuse resulting in the boy’s death.
The Steamboat Pilot & Today on April 16 requested the autopsy and pathology reports related to the boy’s death under the Colorado Open Records Act.
Ryg, who was represented Wednesday by the District Attorney’s Office, filed an application two days later in district court asking the court for an order restricting public access to the reports sought by the newspaper.
Austin’s grandmother told the Steamboat Today after a recent court hearing that police told her that Austin had died of "extreme dehydration."
A cause of death has not been released by officials.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Steamboat police detective Stuart Hutton testified there still were 10 to 20 potential witnesses identified in the case that have not been interviewed. He said the release of the autopsy report could cause these witnesses and others to form an opinion that could taint their testimony.
He added that there was a particular "inflammatory" word contained in the autopsy report that, if made known to the public now, could negatively impact the investigation and possibly shade witness testimony.
Routt County Public Defender Sheryl Uhlmann, who is representing McKeon, also objected to the release of the autopsy report.
Chris Beall, the Denver attorney representing the Steamboat Pilot & Today, argued that Colorado lawmakers have affirmed autopsy reports are public records that must be released to the public unless they would cause injury to the public interest that the lawmakers never could have foreseen.
He said the case in Steamboat did not meet that requirement.
"The Legislature has made a considered judgment that a public record should be released within three days of a request unless the custodian of that record can demonstrate there would be a substantial injury to the public interest," Beall said. "There is no basis to delay the disclosure here because there hasn’t been a substantial injury."
In addition to being a public record, the release of the autopsy, Beall said, could impact public discourse in a meaningful way.
He said the details could hypothetically do such things as influence the Steamboat Springs City Council to discuss possible regulations that would require livable cabins here to have running water.
Police have said the cabin they think Austin was left alone in for four days before his death did not have running water.
Responding to the concern that the release of the autopsy report could make it harder for McKeon to be tried in Routt County, O’Hara said “the spectre of a change of venue cannot guide the court.”
“This (autopsy report) is going to be released sooner or later no matter what I say,” O’Hara said. “In my experience, the public, despite our fears as lawyers sometimes, does a good job of putting aside things they may have heard in the past, and opinions they may have formed.”
O’Hara gave Ryg until noon Tuesday to comply with his order.
The decision could be appealed.
"We’re disappointed in the ruling. We’ll consult and decide what our next steps are," District Attorney Brett Barkey said after the hearing.
Suzanne Schlicht, publisher of the Steamboat Pilot & Today, said the newspaper has been and will continue to be vigilant about making sure government officials uphold the open records law.
“First and foremost, we are working to get the Austin Davis autopsy report released so that citizens can understand all of the information about this tragic event that happened in our tight-knit community,” Schlicht said. “But just as important is reinforcing the principle that justice is, by law, not supposed to be conducted in secret. In Colorado, autopsy reports are regularly and routinely made public.
“If local media doesn’t fight to ensure open access to this autopsy report and other important public records, this impulse to keep information secret will eventually swamp the public’s right to open and visible justice,” Schlicht added.