Editorial: Prosecutors Shouldn't Be Hiding Crime Records

The Connecticut Law Tribune


Danbury prosecutor Stephen Sedensky and Michelle Cruz, a former prosecutor and State Victim Advocate, have recently been talking up the need to protect Newtown survivors from sights or sounds that bring back the events of that horrifying day.

Sedensky had been working to block the release of the 911 calls from Sandy Hook Elementary School. Cruz is avidly supporting a new exception to the Freedom of Information Act for crime scene videos and photographs. The measure was engineered in the last two weeks of the legislative session, without any public hearing, with support and assistance from the offices of Gov. Dannel Malloy and Chief State's Attorney Kevin Kane. It is currently being reworked by a legislative task force.

In these battles, prosecutors are positioning themselves as advocates for the families of the victims, taking an adversarial stance against the media, the interested public, and open records laws.

This is certainly outside the prosecutor's basic role – the purely public one.

At their best, our state prosecutors are representing the collective social interest of the people of Connecticut, bringing meritorious criminal cases in the name of the state. Their job is to fairly impose the legislatively-created criminal laws through the state court framework – an essential function that is empowered and legitimized by its highly public nature.

If they do their job right, prosecutors can never lose. When a criminal trial is conducted competently and fairly, an acquittal for a defendant is not a loss for the prosecutor, it's a victory. It's an example of the system operating as it was designed.

Our prosecutors derive their authority from the people of the state of Connecticut. They are working for all of us — not just individuals directly injured by a crime.

There are plenty of lawyers who make a living advocating or lobbying for some subset of the public, serving private civil clients and interest groups. But this isn't a prosecutor's job.

That's why it is unseemly for them to lend their prestige to a campaign to suppress public access to the documentary records and facts surrounding criminal incidents. Those records include 911 tapes, crime scene photographs and videos. For one thing, hiding this information makes it that much more difficult for the public to evaluate law enforcement's response to crime-like activity. The public, which has the ultimate control over the quality of our criminal justice system, can't increasingly be kept in the dark.

That, unfortunately, is the trend. When it was created 40 years ago, Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act was regarded as the nation's best. But it has been whittled away by 27 exemptions and weakened by court decisions. One recent study by Arizona professor David Cuillier has found that Connecticut's government transparency, based on a dozen open government criteria, has drifted to 25th among the states.

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