Secretly Drafted Bill Would Leave Release of Some Newtown Investigative Records Up To Families

A draft of the bill was released Wednesday afternoon by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's office, which has been working behind the scenes in recent weeks on drafting the language with legislative leaders and the office of the state's top prosecutor. (MICHAEL McANDREWS)

House and Senate leaders, as well as Kane, received copies of the letter from Michael Schroeder, president of the Connecticut Daily Newspaper Association; Michael Ryan, president of the Connecticut Broadcasters Association; and Jim Smith, president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information.

They urged the Malloy administration and lawmakers to avoid "a response that would restrict public access to information about what happened at Sandy Hook, or other crimes, regardless of scope, moving forward."

They added: "While many tragic events have made us question whether the disclosure of information is always in the best interest of a society, history has demonstrated repeatedly that governments must favor disclosure. Only an informed society can make informed judgments on issues of great moment."

Public 'In Dark'

Sandra Staub, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut, said her group is "troubled to learn that exceptions to open government are being drafted and planned in secret."

"Regardless of the merits, if any, of the legislative proposal, there's no excuse for creating new open records exemptions without a full public hearing," she said. "Good public policy is not made in the dark. That's why we have freedom of information laws in the first place."

Speaking up for the proposal was Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, R-Fairfield, whose district includes Newtown.

"I represent the people of Newtown in the state Senate and that includes the parents and family members of those who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School," McKinney said in a statement Wednesday. "No one has been a stronger advocate of Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act than I have, but on behalf of the Sandy Hook families, and because this was an unprecedented tragedy, I support a one-time exception, so that graphic evidence and the crime scene photographs of the murdered children and loved ones of my constituents are not exploited."

"What we're trying to do is recognize that the victims of Newtown have undergone a tremendous trauma,'' House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said in an interview. "In this unique situation, there is a sense that we should try to protect the families of the victims by limiting access to certain sensitive materials from the crime scene. We've developed this in response to requests from the elected representatives of the victims. It started with the town clerk's refusal to issue the death certificates, but the conversation about what to do expanded into the question of the other particularly sensitive and horrific photos and materials that came from the crime scene.''

"This is unique, and I think that most people in Connecticut recognize that this is something that strikes very deeply in the hearts of everyone in this state,'' Sharkey said. "We, first and foremost, need to protect these families, recognizing this is a completely unique set of circumstances.''

It was still unclear Wednesday whether the House or Senate would take up the bill first. As now drafted, it would be attached as an amendment to an existing bill that would let state police charge $16 for a copy of a report on an accident or investigation, and charge a citizen 25 cents a page for merely looking at such a report.

Rank-and-file lawmakers had not seen a final version of the measure to restrict access to Newtown investigation records, but they still expressed concern about its contents.

"I don't know how you separate Newtown from the other incidents,'' said Rep. Steven Mikutel, a veteran Democrat from Griswold. "I don't think we should be doing a piece of legislation that just covers Newtown. ... On the 911 tapes, I think that's a bit of an overreach. They give them out to the media. I'm comfortable with releasing that, and that should not be part of the bill. I think this is an overreaction to protect 911 tapes. Let the truth come out on the 911 tapes.''

Mikutel, one of the longest-serving House members, with 20 years of experience, said that lawmakers were forced to vote on the gun-control package this year without knowing the full details of the crimes by shooter Adam Lanza. For example, he said, legislators did not know whether Lanza had any alcohol or drugs in his system at the time that they voted on the gun-control bill. Recently, after the vote, The Courant disclosed that an autopsy showed that Lanza had no alcohol or drugs in his system.

"We didn't know until afterward whether this shooter was on drugs. That's disturbing to me,'' Mikutel said Wednesday. "I find that disturbing as a legislator to vote on that gun bill without knowing all the facts of that case.''

Mikutel said he was not concerned that any daily newspapers would publish horrific crime scene photographs because they have not done that routinely in the past.

"I don't worry about the newspapers publishing these pictures at all,'' Mikutel said. "I'm worried about the professional hackers, the cranks, the gadflies, and the crackpots. I'm not afraid of the media.''

Courant reporter Dave Altimari contributed to this story.