Judge orders hearing on release of Columbine autopsies

Friday, June 16, 2000

A roundup of recent court cases, legislation and disputes involving public records.

DENVER — The Denver Post wants to review 13 autopsies from the Columbine High School shootings to find out, among other things, whether police shot one of the victims and whether one gunman shot the other. State District Court Judge R. Brooke Jackson set a June 20 hearing and ordered the newspaper’s attorneys to send copies of their complaint to the victims’ families, according to court documents filed June 2. The Post argues it needs the autopsies to judge law enforcement response to the shooting and “to better understand and come to grips with that tragedy.” Teen-agers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed a dozen students and a teacher at the high school in April 1999. Harris and Klebold also died. The autopsy of Harris was released by court order, and the report on victim Isaiah Shoels was released voluntarily by the Shoels family. The Post is asking for the remaining 13 autopsies.

Jim Rouse, a lawyer for the families of six victims, says his clients want the records to remain sealed. “It’s an extreme invasion of their privacy to have the whole world know what happened to their children in that kind of graphic detail,” Rouse said. Jefferson County District Judge Henry Nieto sealed the victims’ autopsies in May 1999, saying that releasing the reports would harm the public’s interest by prolonging the families’ grief. “The Post’s position today is that time has passed,” Post attorney Christopher Beall said. “The community and the public have an important concern that would be addressed by releasing the autopsy.” Nieto last year ordered both the gunmen’s autopsies unsealed but agreed to withhold the Klebold report pending an appeal by his parents. The Colorado Court of Appeals upheld that appeal last month but said news organizations could seek limited access to the records. In its complaint, the Post questions the sheriff’s finding that Klebold committed suicide. Harris’ autopsy shows he died of injuries consistent with a self-inflicted wound to the mouth. The newspaper also questions official findings that Daniel Rohrbough was killed by the gunmen. Brian Rohrbough contends in a lawsuit that his son was shot by police. Associated Press

Texas: School district should release computer data, state attorney general says
AUSTIN — The state attorney general’s office has joined the Internet Open Records Project in asking a state appeals court to force the Dallas Independent School District to release computer data. “The law entitles citizens to public information in all of its forms, written, audio, even electronic,” said Attorney General John Cornyn in a prepared statement. In 1997, the Internet Open Records Project and the Dallas chapter of the NAACP requested a database containing scores from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills for each student in the district for the past 10 years. A trial court ruled in 1998 that the school district did not have to release the information. The 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the appeal June 21. Russell Fish, cofounder of the Open Records Project, said he and his team of experts from the University of Texas and other schools would use the data to check the effectiveness of teachers. Some minority groups in Dallas suspect less qualified teachers are sent to primarily black and Hispanic schools while the best teachers are sent to schools with more white students, he said. He would also publish the data on the Internet.

Eric Moye, attorney for the school district, said the district does not want to release the database because federal law prohibits school districts from distributing personal information about students. He disputed Fish’s assertion that the district could easily comply with the law by giving each student a unique identifying number and redacting other personal information. “I think there is no way to guarantee the student’s confidentiality,” Moye said. Also, he said the Public Information Act says governments do not have to create new records for requesters. Cornyn’s friend-of-the-court brief says a 1995 amendment to the Public Information Act provides procedures for removing student names and other information that the Dallas school district could use. The brief states that under Texas law, the school district is obligated to redact personal information about the students and to release the database. Associated Press

Wisconsin: Stop charging excessive fees for records, attorney general warns officials
MADISON — State Attorney General James Doyle is warning sheriff’s departments, county clerks and other officials against charging excessive fees for access to public records. Doyle issued a letter last week to public-records custodians statewide after receiving complaints that some were charging a fee for finding records that should be readily accessible. The open-records law was intended to give the public access to records at a reasonable cost, Doyle wrote. The state open-records law, passed in 1981, presumes all government records are public, with some exemptions, such as health-care records. Public-records custodians, which include clerks for cities, counties and courts, can charge a fee for finding records if doing so costs more than $50. But Doyle said records such as meeting minutes, travel expense reports and other bills should not require expensive searches.

Although there are some situations where larger fees are justified — such as when government agencies incur a large cost in finding documents — the public already has paid for the cost of gathering and managing records through their taxes, said Jim Haney, a spokesman for Doyle. Dave Zweifel, editor of The Capital Times of Madison, wrote Doyle after the Wisconsin Heights School District charged the newspaper $143.42 to obtain a superintendent’s travel and expense records. The newspaper sought the reports because opponents of Superintendent Roberta Felker accused her of spending too much time and money attending out-of-state conferences, Zweifel said. “All they did was go into the files and get her travel expense information,” he said. “This was the way the school district had been thwarting ordinary citizens from finding out this information.” Doyle has received numerous complaints from journalists and the public about excessive fees to find records, Haney said.

As more people become interested in obtaining records and they become more widely available on the Internet, governments could try to make more money from those trying to get access, said Jeff Hovind, editor and publisher of the Waukesha Freeman and the president of the Freedom of Information Council. In the spring of 1999, the Madison-based council conducted the first-ever audit to measure the condition of government openness in Wisconsin. The audit of Wisconsin’s 72 sheriff’s departments found that more than half failed to comply with the state’s open-records law when auditors sought a list of one week’s arrests from each agency. The council is comprised of representatives of eight journalistic organizations in Wisconsin, including the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the Wisconsin Associated Press Association. Associated Press

Pennsylvania: Judge rejects newspaper’s bid to open former officer’s settlement
PITTSBURGH — A judge has denied a newspaper’s request to release details of the city’s settlement with a former police officer acquitted of homicide charges last February. Allegheny County Judge Robert E. Dauer on June 12 rejected the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s request that he order the city to publicly release details of Jeffrey Cooperstein’s settlement. The newspaper sued the city to obtain the settlement under the state public-records law. Cooperstein was fired after he fatally shot Deron S. Grimmitt during a police chase in December 1998. The city argued that the settlement was a result of a disciplinary hearing held after Cooperstein was fired and addressed medical issues not covered by the state’s Right to Know Act. That act says public records should be available, but it exempts investigative documents or materials that could prejudice or impair a person’s personal security or reputation. An Allegheny County jury in February acquitted Cooperstein of homicide in Grimmitt’s death. He fought to regain his job, and struck a deal with the city on May 15 to retire. Mayor Tom Murphy then rescinded the termination. Associated Press