Set for hearing in Senate Judiciary a week from tomorrow is a far more serious limitation on public information. SB 982 would give the biological, adoptive or foster parent of a child murdered or otherwise criminally killed, or the child's spouse or guardian, the right upon simple request to have the autopsy report sealed, together with any associated "object, writing, diagram, recording, computer file, photograph, video, DVD, CD, film, digital device, or other item which was collected during or serves to document the autopsy." The sealing request would not be available to a person charged with or convicted of criminal responsibility for the homicide.
The law already prohibits the making of a copy, reproduction, or facsimile of any kind of photos, negatives, or print of the body, or any portion of the body, of a deceased person taken by or for the coroner at the scene of death or in the course of a postmortem exam or autopsy made by or caused to be made by the coroner, except for use in a criminal proceeding. In addition, any coroner's report in the case of a suspicious death may be withheld from the public indefinitely as part of a criminal investigative file, the California Court of Appeal has held.
The bill, authored by Senator Dennis Hollingsworth (R-San Diego) and sponsored by the San Diego District Attorney's office, was prompted by the refusal of a judge to grant the request of the parents of rape and murder victim Chelsea King, 17, of Poway, to seal all records in the case.
Arguments against the measure were summarized in an editorial today in the Sacramento Bee.
The impulse for such a law is understandable perhaps, but the bill is unwise public policy. As the Child Advocacy Institute noted in its letter of opposition, 61 percent of American children under age 5 who were murdered during the last quarter of the 20th century, were killed by their own parents.
Even where parents are not implicated in a murder, their interests should not be the only or even the most important interests considered as criminal justice officials compile evidence in murder cases involving children or anyone else. The entire community has a vital interest in bringing murderers to justice. Sealing key evidence like an autopsy report from public scrutiny can actually impede justice.
Just a few months ago, The Bee published a series of investigative reports about the mysterious death of foster child Amariana Crenshaw. That report was informed, in large part by, a re-examination of Amariana's autopsy reports that The Bee instigated. After reviewing the reports, different coroners from around the country reached different conclusions about how the 4-year-old died. Those reviews raised questions about Amariana's former foster parent. They became a significant factor in the decision by the state of California to first remove other foster children from Amariana's foster parent's home and prevent other juvenile wards of the court from being placed there.
The California Newspaper Publishers Association also opposes the bill. Not only does sealing public documents like autopsy reports violate the public's right to know about how its government, particularly the criminal justice system, operates, it could have tragic unintended consequences for law enforcement. Police often rely on information disseminated by the newspapers and television to help solve crimes. Sealing autopsy reports at the behest of parents hurts law enforcement and the public. Senate Bill 982 is a bill legislators should reject, quickly and decisively.