Malloy Signs Bill To Withhold Homicide Photos, Other Records, After Newtown

The bill applies to all homicide cases - not just Newtown - and will block photos and videos of homicide victims. (Michael McAndrews)

The state Senate and House, after short debates, voted overwhelmingly early Wednesday to approve a bill blocking public disclosure of photos of homicide victims and some other records in reaction to the Newtown school massacre.

The Senate took up the bill at 1:17 a.m. and voted 33-2 to approve it at about 1:35 a.m. Voting no were Democratic Sens. Edward Meyer of Guilford and Anthony Musto of Trumbull.

At 2 a.m. the House approved it by a vote of 130-2, with Democratic Reps. Stephen Dargan of West Haven and Peter Tercyak of New Britain voting against it.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy signed the bill into law at about 1:45 p.m. Wednesday. It takes effect immediately.

The bill applies to all homicide cases — not just to the Newtown investigation, as an earlier version of the proposal would have dictated — and it will block release of photos, videos, or digital video images "depicting the victim of a homicide, to the extent that such record could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy" of the victim or surviving family members.

Audiotapes of 911 emergency calls would continue to be released as public records under the state Freedom of Information Law according to the new language drafted Tuesday night.

However, parts of audio recordings of other calls made by law enforcement personnel – portions in which the speaker describes "the condition of a victim of homicide" – would not have to be disclosed by a law enforcement agency.

As originally discussed, the bill would have blocked release of all audiotapes of 911 calls — which are routinely released in Connecticut and across the country, and are used by citizens and news organizations to evaluate police response to emergencies.

The 911 emergency call tapes had been the last big sticking point after days of negotiations that finally brought a compromise late Tuesday night. The bill would have been voted on a bit earlier but for the fact that 110 lawmakers wanted to sign on as sponsors -- and it took time to list all of their names on the measure.

Malloy issued this statement after the vote: "My goal with this legislation was to provide some measure of protection for the families affected by the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School [in Newtown]. But the fact is, all families have a right to grieve in private. Those who lose loved ones to violence have a right to protect themselves against further anguish. This is a difficult issue, requiring all of us to balance deeply held beliefs and important public policy values. I commend the legislators on coming to an agreement that respects the privacy of grieving families."

The bill also exempts the names of witnesses under 18 years old from disclosure under the state's Freedom of Information Law, and calls for establishment by July 1 of a task force "to consider and make recommendations regarding the balance between victim privacy under the Freedom of Information Act and the public's right to know."

There is an 11-month limit on the bill's provision saying police departments don't need to release portions of tapes of radio transmissions describing "the condition of a victim of homicide." It only applies to requests for such tapes on or before May 7, 2014 – which is the last day of the 2014 legislative session. By then, the task force should have made its recommendations, and lawmakers will have decided whether to extend the exemption under which police could refuse such requests, lawmakers said.

Task Force Members

The 17-member task force will include: the director of the state FOI Commission, Colleen Murphy; a person appointed by the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information; the chief state's attorney; the chief public defender; the state victim advocate; the commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection; two appointees of Malloy, one representing a "crime victim advocacy organization," and one "a representative of municipal law enforcement"; a constitutional law professor recommended jointly by the law school deans at Yale, Quinnipiac University and UConn; four appointees of the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists, one each representing television, radio, print and "electronic media"; state Senate President Pro Tempore Donald Williams or a lawmaker he designates; House Speaker Brendan Sharkey or a member of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus whom he designates; Senate Minority Leader John McKinney or a lawmaker he designates; and House Minority Leader Larry Cafero or a lawmaker he designates.

Williams and Sharkey will choose two "chairpersons" from among the members of the task force, which will be required to submit a report on its findings to the General Assembly by next Jan. 1.

Proponents praised the measure as properly balancing the public's right to know with the right of victims and their families to privacy.

Sharkey, D-Hamden, said: "It is impossible to ignore the concerns of the Newtown families, and in fact families of all homicide victims. I am convinced that nobody needs to see such disturbing graphic crime scene photos. We owe it to all these families to protect them from further pain. In light of the Internet age, the balance between privacy and freedom of information needs to be reexamined and updated. The interim task force [to be formed under the terms of the bill] will now be able to thoroughly explore these issues further and help us ensure that the right to privacy is properly balanced with the public's right to know."

Cafero, R-Norwalk, embraced Nicole Hockley – whose son Dylan, 6, died in the massacre – outside the chamber and told her, "Thank you for helping us do this."

'Large Mistake'

Meyer, one of the two senators who opposed the bill, said: "As a father of six and a grandfather of 13, I identify so much with the horrific crimes of Dec, 14 and the immense sadness that those events bring to the Newtown families," Meyer said. But, he added, "There is a bigger issue here that must be addressed. Criminal conduct occurred which is subject to Connecticut's criminal law, perhaps the most public of our laws. The Newtown crimes were committed on public property. The photos and recordings were taken or obtained by police officers. The suppression of horrific crimes committed on public property and recorded by public officials is not consistent with a free and open society.