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Petit: Families Shouldn’t Have to See Autopsy Results in Media

by Hugh McQuaid | Feb 28, 2011 2:09pm
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Posted to: Courts, Legal, State Capitol

Dr. William Petit Jr. testified before the Judiciary Committee Monday morning in support of a bill that would enable the parents of a child who was murdered to request that their child’s autopsy results not be open to the public.

Petit, whose wife and daughters were brutally murdered in their Cheshire home in 2007, said it adds to the trauma of such an event to be faced with the medical details of a loved one’s death rehashed in the media and on the internet.

“I know from personal experience that photos from public court hearings that are offered as full exhibits, as has been mentioned by committee members, are publicly accessible within minutes and then can be seen world-wide on the internet,” he said. “One would hope that family members of a murder victim would not have to face the specter of seeing medical reports about their murdered children on the internet, newspapers, magazines and elsewhere.”

Though Petit praised the chief medical examiner’s office for denying inappropriate requests and sealing records after cases were resolved, he said that he fears an increase in such requests like other states have seen.

Such a measure would not undermine public oversight of the court system and would help protect the dignity of child murder victims and their surviving family, he said. A similar law was recently enacted in California, Petit said.

That law came on the heels of a double rape and murder of a 17-year-old and a 14-year-old, Petit said.

“There was almost immediately 22 requests for the autopsy reports, which I think is what generated the push for the law in California,” he said.

State Victim Advocate Michelle Cruz also supported the bill and said that while some would argue that the current system is adequate to protect grieving families Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act presents some problems.

“Our current FOI commission is one of the strongest in the country and they have binding authority and to the OVA’s experience there have been situations where information has been released or at least sought after that involves autopsy reports such as photographs,” she told the committee.

Cruz recommended an amendment to the measure that would place a burden on the requester of the information to provide articulate and legitimate reasons for the disclosure of the information based on specific requirements that the information would benefit the public. If it’s determined that the information should be released, the family of the victim should be allowed the opportunity to be heard prior to its release, she said.

Cruz defended the FOI process and said it was created to hold governmental agencies in check and prevent corruption. The need for such a process remains today, she said. But requests for information have grown over the years and gruesome details of horrific crimes have found their way into media reports, she said.

“Therefore mechanisms such as the proposed legislation here today are becoming necessary to protect unnecessary harm and prevent disclosure of documents and materials that only serve to exploit the suffering of crime victims,” she said.

Sen. John Kissel, R-Enfield, said that in order for the bill to be effective, some amendment would have to be added to treat certain details of violent crimes in a way that is similar to how courts operate when dealing with youthful offenders.

When a court addresses a case involving an offender under the age of 18, the proceedings become closed to media and the general public. If the court did not develop similar policies for the details of violent crime, whatever was discussed would become a matter of public record just like anything else heard in open court.

Cruz said that the victim advocate office could support such an amendment and because of the mechanism exists for juvenile offenders, it should be possible to implement something similar for the autopsy reports of children.

Petit said that while he had initially hoped the bill would be written as simply and narrowly as possible to aid its chances of passing, he thought the amendment was a good idea.

“Philosophically it makes sense as we protect the rights of juveniles even in minor matters, as we have heard over the last several years,” he said.

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