A revised autopsy confirming that Elijah McClain died of ketamine toxicity in his 2019 encounter with Aurora police was made public Friday after a county coroner petitioned a judge to lift an order sealing the document.
A government watchdog group called the move a win for transparency after the previous ruling kept the autopsy report secret for months.
“It’s not a case of, let’s learn all the horrific details about what happened here. It’s more to hold officials accountable in a lot of cases,” said Jeff Roberts, executive director of Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “It’s really important that these documents remain open.”
The 23-year-old Black man died after he was injected with a powerful dose of ketamine while being restrained by officers, according to the unredacted coroner’s report released by the Adams County coroner Friday.
Previously, McClain’s cause of death was released as “undetermined.” The manner of his death is still listed as “undetermined.”
The release of the report comes after a contentious debate, including a lawsuit filed by several news organizations, over the public access to the document that would shed light on McClain’s death. After police stopped the unarmed massage therapist for “being suspicious,” he was put in a neck hold and injected with ketamine. He later died, prompting a national outcry.
Adams County Coroner Monica Broncucia-Jordan released the report after Denver District Court Judge Christopher Baumann approved her emergency motion to remove a court seal on the document. Broncucia-Jordan was previously barred from releasing McClain’s report by Adams County Court Judge Kyle Seedorf because it contained confidential grand jury information.
“Openness and transparency are at the heart of good government,” Broncucia-Jordan said in a statement announcing plans to release the autopsy report. “I believe in the public’s right to information and want to be transparent about the work done in my office. I also respect the rule of law and want to ensure nothing is released that will violate any court order or potentially jeopardize the prosecutions in this case. That is why it was imperative to have the Denver District Court weigh in.”
Several news organizations sued for the release of the report. Colorado Public Radio’s attorney, Steve Zansberg, argued that autopsy reports are a public document under the Colorado Open Records Act and are subject to release, given that nonpublic sections are redacted.
The report on McClain’s death is vital to shed light on how he died, Roberts said. All autopsy reports are excluded from a Colorado Open Records Act provision that makes medical records confidential, unless a judge seals the report.
“But there has to be a very compelling reason to do that,” Roberts said.
McClain, who was stopped after a suspicious person call to Aurora police, was unarmed and never charged with a crime.
Last year, a state grand jury indicted three officers who restrained McClain and two paramedics who injected him with ketamine on manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges in McClain’s death. They have not yet entered pleas. They are due in court Nov. 4.
“In this case, we’re talking about a particular person, there’s so much controversy and questions about how he died so the autopsy report can shed light on the case that’s really in the public interest,” Roberts said.
The importance of releasing autopsy reports extends beyond those who receive intense national scrutiny, he said, pointing to children who die in the child welfare system. Reporters have used the reports to uncover injustices within the system, leading to change in public policy and laws.
U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper recognized the need for public access to these records while governor when he vetoed a 2018 state senate bill intended to close public access to autopsy reports on minors, dismissing a request from some county coroners who said disclosuring the records unnecessarily invaded the privacy of families and encouraged copycat teen suicides.
“History shows that bringing tragedies to the public’s attention is the greatest catalyst for public policy change,” Hickenlooper wrote in his letter explaining the veto. “Transparency can lead to enhanced government protections, greater public and private resources, and heightened public understanding and demand for change.”
Randy Keller, president of Colorado’s Coroner Association, said Friday he believes there is a benefit to the transparency that autopsy reports provide to the public, explaining that Colorado county coroner’s offices are obligated to release them.
It’s not uncommon for coroners to receive new information about a case once an autopsy is complete and both the original and amended reports are public documents barring a judge order, he added.
“There’s a lot of pertinent information on an autopsy report that can cause issues with families, but with our office being a state statute-driven elected office, we do not really have the choice,” Keller said. “As long as it’s not ordered by the court that we cannot release it, it will be released.”
But with access to the reports, reporters and the public must weigh how best to use the sensitive details with the information that could be used to hold people in positions of power accountable, he said.
“I would hope that the media and the general public keep in mind that sometimes this is very delicate information for families. Sometimes it can really hurt them and we need to look out for their best interest,” Keller said. “It is a balancing act.”