County will pay $25,000 in attorney’s fees in autopsies case

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El Paso County has agreed to pay $25,000 in attorney’s fees to a media group that challenged former El Paso County Coroner Robert Bux’s refusal to release autopsy reports after a Colorado Springs Police deputy was killed in a shootout with a theft suspect.

Denver media attorney Steven Zansberg notified the media group, composed of The Gazette, Colorado Springs Independent and several TV news organizations, on July 10, that the county has indicated it will not appeal District Court Judge Michael McHenry’s May 29 ruling awarding attorney’s fees to the media group. The Independent is a sister publication of the Business Journal.

Deputy Micah Flick, part of a task force composed of CSPD officers and El Paso County Sheriff’s deputies, was fatally shot Feb. 5, 2018 while attempting to arrest Manuel Zetina, a suspect in a vehicle theft. Zetina was shot and killed by another police officer.

The shootout occurred at an apartment complex at Murray Boulevard and Galley Road. Three other officers were injured and a bystander, Thomas Villanueva, was wounded and paralyzed from the chest down.

The Gazette filed a request for the autopsy reports on Flick and Zetina under the Colorado Open Records Act a week after the shootings. On March 15, 2018, the Colorado Springs Independent also requested the autopsy reports. Both news organizations filed additional requests later that spring.

Bux filed a petition July 12, 2018 seeking court approval to withhold the autopsy reports on grounds that they would cause substantial injury to the public interest and distress to Flick’s family, and would compromise an ongoing investigation.

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The Gazette and Independent were joined by KDVR-TV. KKTV-TV, KOAA-TV and KUSA-TV and hired Zansberg, who filed a response to the coroner’s petition Aug. 23.

A hearing on the petition was set for Sept. 13, but on Sept. 5, the Colorado Springs Police Department released a full report on the shootout, and on Sept. 7, Bux released the autopsy reports and asked the court to dismiss the petition.

The media group filed a motion Sept. 21 requesting reimbursement for $9,557 in attorneys’ fees and costs. A hearing on the motion was held April 8 but was continued until May 29.

At the May 29 hearing, “the judge found the coroner’s withholding of the two autopsy reports was not proper” and awarded the media group 100 percent of their attorneys’ fees, Zansberg stated in an email. The fees accumulated by the group by then had approached $20,000.

Zansberg said final invoicing showed the media group’s fees totaled about $29,000. The payment would leave each plaintiff with out-of-pocket costs of about $660. 

He said County Attorney Diana May estimated it would take 30-40 days for the county to process and pay the fees.

“The media’s first responsibility is to our readers, which includes shining a light on government activities,” Indy and CSBJ Publisher Amy Sweet stated in an Independent online article after McHenry’s fee decision. “The Indy will always fight for the public’s right to know.” 

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