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When the General Assembly passed a law in its closing hours last June barring public access to crime scene photos, videos and recordings, its primary motive was to protect the privacy of the families of the 20 children and six educators killed in Newtown. The legislature's good intentions were not questioned. But what is being questioned, and with good reason, is the impact this law may have on other crimes and other victims.
Florida has a similar law, passed in 2001 in order to protect the privacy of the family of Dale Ernhardt, the famous NASCAR driver who had been killed in a race. Mr. Ernhardt's family sought to suppress the release of an autopsy that might have shown his life could have been saved by using a head and neck restraint in his car. The legislature obliged with a law that barred the release of autopsies along with other public records, unless the victim's family agreed. It was recently applied in the case of Raymond Herisse, who was shot and killed on a crowded street in Miami Beach on Memorial Day in 2011.
This case should interest the task force, appointed by the General Assembly following criticism of its Newtown law, and given the job of seeking a balance between the right to privacy and the right to know.
A car driven by Mr. Herisse, who had been drinking, had been chased by police from two communities until he finally stopped and waited behind the wheel for the police to leave their cruisers and approach his car. But instead of ordering Mr. Herisse out of the car, the officers opened fire and didn't stop until they had pumped 116 bullets into the car and a nearby crowd. Sixteen bullets struck and killed Mr. Herisse and stray shots wounded four bystanders, three of them seriously. The officers first claimed Mr. Herisse had fired at them, but his car window, riddled with incoming bullets, was closed and it took the police three days to happen to find a gun in the Herisse car. An examination of the victim's hands showed no sign of his having fired a weapon the day of his death.
Answers to all of the other questions raised by the death of Mr. Herisse have been withheld from the public while the police conducted a 27-month investigation into their own misconduct. After a report was recently turned over to the Miami-Dade County state's attorney, she announced it would take several more months before she could determine if, as it may appear, the officers used excessive force.
And so, information as to why the police chose not to arrest the young man, but chose to fire at him 116 times, why so many shots were fired on a crowded city street and why the investigation has taken so long, will continue to be withheld.
Some evidence has been destroyed. After the shooting, witnesses saw police forcefully confiscating and sometimes stomping on cellphones and those aren't the only questionable police actions.The police attempted to portray Mr. Herisse as a thug with a long history of violence, but most of his previous offenses involved driving and the most serious crime he was accused of, but not convicted, was stealing a car.
Police have even refused to release information needed by the three most seriously wounded bystanders to pay their medical bills and recover lost wages. One still has a bullet lodged in his chest as he awaits access to a fund for crime victims. Another has paid doctors $120,000, suffers post traumatic stress and has not been able to work.
And Miami Beach's city attorney has defied a court order to release autopsy reports, photos, videos and police radio conversations because the 27-month-old investigation was continuing. The suit had been filed by the dead man's family and the wounded.
All of this is so different from Newtown but both shootings are covered by a law aimed at protecting a family's privacy at the expense of the public's right to know and both raise a common question, one asked by a member of the Connecticut task force after its first meeting:
"If we're allowing the government to decide that something should not be public, how do we know that they're doing the right thing?"