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Autopsy reports in Columbine shooting are not public

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    NMU         COLORADO         Freedom of Information         May 15, 2000    

Autopsy reports in Columbine shooting are not public

  • Court rules that release of autopsy reports of school shooting victims would cause substantial psychological harm to the public.

Autopsy reports of the victims from last year’s shooting rampage at Columbine High School should not be made public under the state’s open records law, a Colorado appeals court ruled in mid May.

The Jefferson County District Court was right to find the autopsy reports exempt under the open records law because their release would cause substantial psychological harm to the public, the appeals court in Denver ruled May 11.

Denver’s two daily newspapers, The Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post, had requested access to the autopsy reports from the April 20, 1999, shootings, in which teen-age gunmen Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 other students and a teacher before killing themselves. The Jefferson County coroner, with the support of the victims’ families, filed suit in Golden, Colo., for a ruling that the autopsy reports should not be released because they serve no public purpose and would only further victimize the families involved and the community as a whole. The newspapers were allowed to intervene in the coroner’s suit and to seek release of the autopsy reports.

In June 1999, the district court ruled that although autopsy reports are generally public in Colorado, a provision of the records law allows record custodians such as the coroner to petition the court for an order exempting information that if released would work against the public interest. The court, however, ruled that the Klebold family had not followed the proper procedural rules and would not be allowed to join in the case to keep their son’s autopsy report from being released.

On appeal, the newspapers argued that the Legislature understood autopsy reports often contained graphic information that may disturb some people but that it nonetheless felt releasing autopsy reports would be in the public interest. The appeals court disagreed, claiming that the Legislature had indeed wanted autopsy reports to be withheld in cases such as this one where their release would harm the public.

The appeals court overturned the trial court’s ruling that Klebold’s autopsy report should be made public. The Klebold family should have been allowed to intervene to keep their son’s autopsy report secret, the appeals court found.

The appeals court, however, noted that nothing in its decision would prevent the newspapers from returning to court to ask for the release of some if not all of the autopsy information at a later date, presumably when the public would be better able to cope with the information contained in the autopsy reports.

(Bodelson v. Denver Publishing Co; Media counsel: Marc Flink, Thomas Kelley, Denver)

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