A Crime Like No Other, Followed by Secrecy to Match

by Categorized: First Amendment, Law Enforcement, Legal Affairs, Media, Politics, Public Safety, Transparency/FOI Date:

For many, the horrible massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School five months ago was a crime like no other in the state’s history.

So is that a reason to treat its investigation with a level of secrecy like no other?

Connecticut’s top prosecutor thinks so, as do some gubernatorial and legislative leaders, as well as some of the relatives who lost loved ones in the school. As my colleagues Jon Lender and Ed Mahony report, officials have been working behind the scenes for weeks on legislation that would establish special rules for Sandy Hook, blocking release of certain details from the investigation that would be released for other crimes.

The officials are asking the legislature for permission to withhold images of the victims, recordings of 911 calls and any other audio transmission that describes the physical condition of the victims, and the name of any minor witness.

Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane told the Courant that major news outlets typically don’t publish or broadcast crime-scene photographs or other gruesome images, but he said the Newtown killings “rose to a whole different level,” attracting wide interest from bloggers and the public. Proponents also say releasing the 911 tapes would unfairly show the anguish of those who called.

Another provision would give Newtown officials permission to refuse media requests for copies of death certificates for those who died at Sandy Hook. Remarkably, the bill would grant that permission retroactively, meaning the legislature could take a vote in May 2013 that would establish what the laws of the state were in January 2013. That sort of ex post facto lawmaking is typically frowned on.

As the community tries to cope with its incomprehensible loss, access to those death certificates has become a curious line in the sand, and perhaps a cathartic battle for town officials rightly steeped in grief. State Rep. Mitch Bolinsky called reporters “jackals” for requesting the records. Town Clerk Debbie Aurelia defied decades of law by simply refusing to turn them over. And a recent poster on this site declared “I don’t want to or need to read a 6 year old’s death certificate explaining how his head was blown off.”

But that is almost certainly not what any of the death certificates contain. As those who have worked with death certificates know, the records typically include extremely brief and clinical descriptions of the cause of death. “Atherosclerotic heart disease” is common. Or “malignant neoplasm of the lung.” Or, tragically, “multiple gunshot wounds to the head.”

Withholding that detail may not bring much solace to those most affected by last December’s rampage. But as officials strive to navigate the sensitivities of Newtown, that may not much matter.

Officials say the bill could be voted on at any time. The full text of the legislation is below.

Download (PDF, 256KB)

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