Craig Colby wants to help the public see dead people—starting with Dennis Lamar Young.
Colby is no ghost hunter. He's a Portland lawyer fighting to open up Young's autopsy report after the unarmed man was shot and killed in a car Jan. 4 by a Portland police lieutenant outside the house of the officer's sister.
After the shooting in his Rose City Park neighborhood, Colby started a personal campaign (see "Hot Pursuit," WW, May 17, 2006) to show the slaying was unjustified. This week, the 63-year-old Northeast Portlander took that crusade to a Salem courtroom, where he argued that the state medical examiner should release Young's autopsy report—and, by extension, he hopes, autopsy reports in all police shootings.
"The public may be able to get an independent forensic opinion as to whether the actions...could really have happened," says Colby, who typically handles tenant-landlord cases.
Colby's arguments in Marion County Circuit Court come amid a trio of local police-involved deaths since mid-September. James Chasse Jr. died of trauma to the chest after a scuffle with Portland officers; Lukus Glenn, a suicidal, knife-wielding teen, was shot by Washington County Sheriff's deputies; and Neil Bruce Marcy was shot last weekend by police after reportedly raising two guns toward two Forest Grove officers and one Cornelius officer.
Chasse's family chose to give media outlets copies of his autopsy report last week. But Oregon's chief medical examiner, Karen Gunson, believes state law prevents her from more widely releasing autopsy reports to the public, citing a section of law that says those reports "are confidential and are not accessible for public inspection."
"I would release it if that's what the law told me to do," she says.
Colby argues that the law pertaining to medical examiner's records, in concert with other public records laws, isn't that cut and dried.
His crusade can be traced to an early winter morning when Portland Police Lt. Jeffrey Kaer responded to a cell phone call from his sister about a suspicious vehicle in front of her Northeast Portland house, even though he was on duty in another precinct. Kaer, who didn't notify anyone he was leaving his post, confronted the sleeping Young in a 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass, and had him in a "San Kajo" wrist lock until Young tried to drive away, according to police reports cited by Colby in a July letter to local officials.
According to those reports, Kaer pulled his gun after the car's doorframe struck him when the car accelerated, hit a tree and then backed up. Kaer, who later said he feared he would be run over, fired the shot that killed Young. But Colby believes the car may have been going forward again, away from Kaer, when the officer fired.
In that July 31 letter to Police Chief Rosie Sizer, Mayor Tom Potter and District Attorney Mike Schrunk, Colby argues that the case demands not only departmental discipline, but criminal prosecution. The internal affairs investigation into Kaer is finished, police say, and the case will next come before the Police Bureau's use-of-force review board, which comprises officers and citizens. Earlier this year, a Multnomah County grand jury found no criminal wrongdoing in the shooting of Young, 28.
In June, Colby wrote another letter to the state's Medical Examiner Advisory Board, proposing it adopt a rule making all autopsy reports from deaths caused by public employees, such as police officers, public records. He also wants the rule to include a provision that would keep unrelated personal medical information private.
"Such a shooting is an instance where the examiner's report assists the public's evaluation of the performance of public employees," he wrote.
Gunson believes such a rule change would still be trumped by state law, which the state Attorney General's Office interprets as a prohibition on releasing autopsy reports to those not directly involved. The law says an autopsy report must be given to the deceased's parents, spouse, children, their authorized representatives and the party who caused the death (who might be criminally or civilly liable). Those people are free to release the report as they see fit, as the Chasse family did.
Among several arguments he made in briefs to Judge Albin W. Norblad, Colby says once a report is given to other agencies, like the police or district attorney, it should become a public record like other documents those agencies handle.
Dan Handelman, a member of the grassroots watchdog group Portland Copwatch, supports Colby's proposal.
"I think that would be incredibly helpful for holding police accountable," Handelman says.