Secret bill, secret records, bad precedent

It is understandable that the governor, prosecutors and lawmakers want to protect the families of the children and adults murdered in the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre from the release of traumatic details and invasive inquiries. But in proposing to place an information shield over those events, and in developing these extraordinary measures secretly without a public discussion and debate, our elected leaders risk setting a troubling precedent with unknown implications.

We are sensitive to the special nature of this terrible event and the pain it continues to inflict. But the importance of keeping information as public as possible, mindful of the check and balance such access provides on the power of government and police, should not be casually discounted.

News reports this week revealed that a bill, drafted behind the scenes, would prevent the release of information about the Dec. 14 Newtown shooting that would normally be publicly available. The logic behind the move is that this was an extremely upsetting event for affected families, and so special steps are appropriate to protect them.

There are several problems with this logic.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and lawmakers should not be circumventing the normal committee process. Draft a bill, present it, and allow for a debate on the merits of the legislation and its potential repercussions.

The bill violates the principle of equal treatment. Certainly the mother of a child shot in the crossfire of warring gangs in Hartford is traumatized, so too the family of a convenience store cashier killed during a robbery. The legislature should not enact laws that provide special treatment for one group.

Which raises the subject of precedent - how will the legislature say no when the next terrible incident happens and individuals demand the same treatment? Over time the exceptions to public disclosure will multiply, inviting more secrecy about criminal acts and how police and investigators handle them. This is not healthy in a free society.

The bill proposes several exceptions to open access laws in the case of the Newtown massacre.

Tapes of 911 calls from that day would not be available, though transcripts of them would be. There is arguably an exploitive aspect to airing these frantic calls for help, but the information can serve a public purpose in assessing the actions of dispatchers and law enforcement and in helping better understand what happened.

The bill would seal from disclosure death certificates related to the Dec. 14 incident. We see no justification for this. Available since colonial times, death certificates provide basic information and do not contain the invasive detail of autopsy reports, which are restricted. Secret deaths have no place in an open society.

The law would allow the removal of names of child witnesses (under 18) in investigatory documents. The concern, apparently, is that someone may try to contact the children. Doing so would certainly be unethical and arguably criminal. Others fear these children will be contacted as adults and asked to recall the tragedy. You might call that historic research. The witnesses can always say no. Allowing anonymous witness statements without good cause invites suspicion.

The bill would block the release of the crime-scene photos. This issue raises legitimate concerns. While no one fears the mainstream media publishing graphic photos, there are worries that conspiracy loonies would post photos online and present arguments they are doctored. Yet there are legitimate reasons for allowing individuals, outside of government, to examine criminal evidence and have the opportunity to challenge conclusions.

In any event, the legislature should present, and debate, any bill calling for practical restrictions on crime-scene photos in the context of all crimes, not one.

Slow the process, provide for an open discussion.

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