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Newspaper gains partial access to Columbine autopsy reports

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  1. Freedom of Information

    NMU         COLORADO         Freedom of Information         Feb 7, 2001    

Newspaper gains partial access to Columbine autopsy reports

  • A district court judge stopped short of issuing complete disclosure despite recognizing the open records law does not exempt the autopsies from release.

In the continuing dispute over records relating to the investigation of the Columbine High School shootings, a Colorado district court judge has granted the media partial access to the autopsy reports of the victims.

In an opinion signed on Jan. 29, Judge R. Brooke Jackson allowed the release of the initial portions of the autopsy reports, which report “in a non-graphic manner, conclusions such as the type of gun used and the part of the body impacted,” to The Denver Post, but closed access to the rest of the reports. The judge acknowledged that under Colorado’s open records law autopsy reports are not exempted and are open to public inspection. He also noted that “publication of autopsy reports might shed some light on what happened” at Columbine.

However, he reasoned that the legislature must have intended for “district courts to permit the closure of such records where the facts of a particular case compel it” because it did not write a law that explicitly states that “all autopsy reports would be public, without exception.” The judge concluded that the “public interest would be substantially injured” if the reports were released because it would harm the families to have the autopsy results aired in public.

The judge made a few exceptions in the ruling. Jackson found that the autopsy report of Daniel Rohrbough should be released because his family claimed the autopsy shows he was killed by a police officer rather than by Dylan Klebold or Eric Harris, the students who shot and killed or wounded many of their classmates before taking their own lives. By making this public accusation, Jackson said the Rohrboughs had created such a strong public interest in their son’s autopsy report that they could no longer demonstrate that it would cause “substantial injury to the public interest” to disclose it.

In another notable exception, Jackson addressed questions about the toxicology report included in Klebold’s autopsy. Although that section of the report would not be released to the public, the judge disclosed that Klebold had no presence of drugs or alcohol in his body.

This ruling marked the second time the district court looked at the autopsy issue.

In May 1999, only five weeks after the shooting, district court Judge Henry E. Nieto closed access to the autopsy reports. On appeal, a state court of appeals upheld the order, but allowed the media to seek to modify the order at a later date. The newspaper petitioned the court for a modification last fall.

Other records of the investigation have been the subject of prior litigation. In April 2000, Jackson ordered the release of the preliminary investigation report, videotapes and 911 tapes, and ballistics reports to the families of the victims. Six months later, Jackson ordered the release of binders of investigative files after police removed victim names, suspect names, the medical treatment received by victims, a “hit list” compiled by Klebold and Harris, and the construction details of the bombs.

Because the families of Isaiah Shoels and Harris did not oppose the disclosure of their sons’ autopsy reports, they were given to the media upon request. Full copies of the reports were also given to parents and spouses of the victims.

(Richard Townsend v. The Denver Post; Thomas Kelly and Steven Zansberg, Faegre & Benson LLP, Denver) CC

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© 2001 The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

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