Bill gives families say over Newtown records

Officials are trying to address privacy concerns expressed by some families of victims

By Susan Haigh
Associated Press

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — The public release of any photograph, videotape or digital recording related to last year’s deadly Newtown elementary school shooting would require the written consent of victims’ family members, according to a working draft of a bill released Wednesday by the governor’s office.

The bill, crafted privately by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office, the state’s top prosecutor and legislative leaders, also would cover any recording depicting the physical condition of any of the victims of the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

The draft also says only written transcriptions of any 911 calls related to the Dec. 14 shooting, not the audio, may be released to the public, for a fee of 50 cents per page.

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said officials have been trying to address privacy concerns expressed by some Newtown families. While he acknowledged traditional media outlets typically do not publish gruesome crime scene photos, he said some family members are particularly worried about such pictures being posted online.

“Right now, with the Internet, we’re in a whole different era,” he said. “These images could be public and could be out there and could end up all over the place, and you just don’t want families subjected to having that type of infringement.”

Once a case is closed, Kane said “a great deal of information can become public or is required to be made public.” He said that information could include crime scene photos. Currently, the Newtown case remains open, even though the shooter, Adam Lanza, committed suicide. Kane acknowledged there probably won’t be a prosecution and the case would be closed. A final report is expected this summer.

The Hartford Courant first reported the efforts to draft legislation restricting release of the Newtown information. Mark Ojakian, Malloy’s chief of staff, referred to the proposal as a “work in progress” that requires more negotiations. Derek Slap, chief of staff for the Senate Democrats, confirmed there is no consensus on the final language of the legislation.

The surprise bill raised concerns among media outlets and the Freedom of Information Commission.

The Connecticut Daily Newspapers Association, Connecticut Broadcasters Association and Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information sent a joint letter to Malloy, cautioning his administration and the legislature against restricting public access to information about what happened at Sandy Hook or other crimes, regardless of scope. Twenty first-graders and six educators were killed in Newtown.

“We maintain that public access to investigative reports, 9-1-1 emergency call transcripts and recordings, death certificates, and the like, serve the public’s best interest by permitting the public to monitor the performance of its government,” the group wrote.

House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, issued a statement stressing that the draft proposal is tailored to just Sandy Hook.

“These rare and limited provisions are about respecting the wishes and privacy of the families of loved ones who were victims at Sandy Hook,” Sharkey said. “The legislation is intentionally narrowed in scope to just the Newtown tragedy and appropriately gives family members a say over whether very personal and painful information, such as photos of their children from the horrific crime scene at Sandy Hook Elementary, are
publically released.”

Colleen Murphy, executive director of the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission, said she heard state officials were originally considering legislation that was broader and could have included all audio recordings and photographs. While she agreed the narrow version is an improvement, she still has concerns about setting precedence for future tragedies.

“Let’s hope we never face any situation like this again,” she said. “But will a situation of lesser degree cause similar concerns and lead to similar passage to deal with a very specific situation? That is probably not the best way to legislate overall.”

Murphy said she is also concerned the bill bypassed the traditional legislative process, such as a public hearing and committee reviews. It’s unclear when lawmakers will take up the legislation. The session is scheduled to adjourn on June 5.

“The fear would be that if bills are drafted without there being public comment and debate, that pass quickly, that can happen any other times that there is a circumstance that people say it’s warranted to do it that way,” she said.

This is not the first proposal to change open records laws in light of the massacre. Newtown Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia has been pushing for legislation that would restrict public access to information on death certificates, arguing that such details can be misused, such as by identity thieves.

Aurelia said she has not released any death certificates of the Newtown victims to people other than family members or attorneys.

The draft bill gives special permission to Aurelia and other Newtown officials to continue withholding those documents.