Judge: Amended McClain autopsy can be released if redacted
DENVER (AP) — A Colorado judge on Friday responded to a request by a coalition of news organizations to release an amended autopsy report for Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man who died after a 2019 encounter with police, by ruling the report be made public only after new information it contains is redacted.
Colorado Public Radio sued the Adams County Coroner for release of the report after learning that information from a grand jury investigation into McClain’s death prompted the report to be amended. The original report issued in 2019 found the cause and manner of McClain’s death to be “undetermined.”
The Associated Press and other media outlets joined Colorado Public Radio in asking the judge to force the report’s release under Colorado open records laws, which consider autopsies public records. The outlets include KCNC-TV, KDVR-TV, KMGH-TV and KUSA-TV.
CPR News reported Friday that Adams County District Judge Kyle Seedorf ordered the coroner to make public the amended autopsy report — but that it can be redacted to exclude new information produced by the grand jury investigation. The judge gave the coroner seven days to produce the report.
The new report’s findings could help prosecutors in a pending case against three police officers and two paramedics facing manslaughter and other charges in McClain’s death.
McClain died in a hospital in August 2019, days after Aurora police officers restrained him and put him in a chokehold before paramedics injected him with 500 milligrams of ketamine, a powerful sedative. The officers confronted McClain after someone called police to report a suspicious person wearing a ski mask and waving his hands walking down a street. He had not been accused of breaking any law.
McClain suffered cardiac arrest, was declared brain dead and taken off life support. His death and those of others at the hands of police, including George Floyd in 2020, prompted protests across the nation against racial injustice.
Adams County Coroner Monica Broncucia-Jordan contracted out the original autopsy and later confirmed to CPR News that it had been amended — but she said she could not release it because of a judge’s order that sealed evidence from the grand jury.
A former local prosecutor declined to file charges against the three officers who confronted McClain, partly because the autopsy could not determine exactly how he died.
The grand jury subsequently indicted the officers and two paramedics in September 2021 following an investigation by state Attorney General Phil Weiser that was ordered by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
Former Officer Jason Rosenblatt, Officers Nathan Woodyard and Randy Roedema, and paramedics Peter Cichuniec and Jeremy Cooper are charged with manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and assault. Their trial is pending.
Judge Seedorf on Friday noted that it is rare for an autopsy report, normally considered a public record, to be amended with information from a secret grand jury investigation.
“The coroner can’t produce that, under the oath she’s taken, so there are going to have to be some interpretations, some determinations made of what needs to be redacted,” the judge said.
According to the indictment, the grand jury heard from an unidentified forensic pathologist who said McClain’s death was a homicide caused by “acute Ketamine administration during violent subdual and restraint by law enforcement and emergency response personnel.”
The Adams County Attorney, Heidi Miller, noted that the coroner is under orders from Denver District Court not to release the information — an assertion backed by Attorney General Weiser’s office.
CPR’s attorney, Steve Zansberg, argued that autopsy reports are public documents subject to release if privileged or non-public sections are redacted.
“All the plaintiffs are seeking is the amended certificate of death and accompanying autopsy report that is not subject” to an order sealing grand jury materials, Zansberg argued.
Judge Seedorf, in his ruling, said he had authority to order the release of the amended autopsy report, but questions about the appropriateness of certain redactions could ultimately be decided by the Denver District Court chief judge.
Last year, the city of Aurora agreed to pay $15 million to settle a lawsuit brought by McClain’s parents.