Task Force Debates Withholding Crime Scene Photos

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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The new law exempts from disclosure under FOIA "a photograph, film, video, digital, or other visual image depicting a homicide victim, to the extent that the record could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the victim's or surviving family members' personal privacy."

There is also a short-term measure that expires in May that prevents the release of audio recordings of law enforcement describing the condition of a victim of homicide.

Former state Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz began the quest to seek limitations on FOI when it came to crime victims in late 2010. She said the personal information of crime victims and their autopsy photos were being released publicly "despite the anguish and heartbreak it was causing the family." Further, she said prisoners were seeking autopsy photos through FOIA for their own kicks.

"The victim of crime was not the original target of the FOIA process," said Cruz. "Rather the target was the government and corruption. Think Watergate. Somehow over the years in Connecticut… this process has turned on the innocent crime victim and their family…"

Becky Virgalla, a survivor of the Sandy Hook shootings, said she did not want to hear her own voice on 911 calls being rebroadcast through the media.

"There is nothing positive to be gained by providing public access to 911 calls other than to satisfy the morbid curiosity of the media and the thrill-seekers who clamor to hear the sound of gunshots in the background of our calls," Virgalla told the task force.

Proponents of open government believe that the legislation passed in response to the Sandy Hook tragedy was short-sighted.

Mitchell Pearlman, a lecturer in law and journalism at the University of Connecticut who used to be chairman of the state's FOIA Commission, said it was understandable that government looked for "quick fixes" to "relieve some of the victims' anguish." But he believes in the long run that could lead to bigger problems.

"..To withhold information from the public in the name of victim privacy is simply to invite less trust and more conspiracy theories, further undermining government's credibility with respect to the fairness of the justice system," Pearlman testified.

Rosanna Cavanagh, a lawyer and executive director for the New England First Amendment Coalition, sides with Pearlman and other open government advocates who testified.

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