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Panel OKs bill on child autopsies

Would seal evidence

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2010

SACRAMENTO, Calif. | A controversial bill that would allow certain family members of murdered children to seal autopsy-related information passed through the state Senate Appropriations Committee on Monday and may go before the full state Senate this week.

As amended, the Deceased Child Victims' Protection and Privacy Act, or Senate Bill 982, would allow biological or adoptive parents, spouses or legal guardians of murdered children under the age of 18 statewide to seal autopsies and related evidence from the public. It gives examples of evidence, such as writings, DVDs or computer information, collected during autopsies. It allows for certain family members to ask for a court hearing if they oppose the information being sealed.

The measure passed the appropriations committee on an unofficial vote of 7-1.

Current state law already prohibits the making of a copy, reproduction or facsimile of photographs of a deceased person taken for an autopsy.

The proposed legislation is marked as "urgent" and is designed to go into effect immediately if it passes the full state Legislature. The bill is authored by state Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, a San Diego Republican, and supported by San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

Two media lobbying groups oppose the bill.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association is against the proposal because people other than family members could have information concerning the deaths of children.

And, California Broadcasters Association Vice President Mark Powers said, "Certainly photographs are off limits, but words on a page don't carry the same emotionalism. Private parties have emotional attachment. Who gets to decide these issues? We can't determine in advance what might be important. We always err on the side of disclosure."

The bill is slated for a full Senate vote Wednesday or Thursday.

The bill brings into sharp focus the debate over the balance between privacy rights of victims' families and the public's right to access autopsy information in order to oversee how public officials are performing. Its introduction follows the requests of at least 22 media outlets nationwide for copies of autopsy information related to two slain San Diego County teens: Chelsea King and Amber Dubois. The requests have been denied.

In general, autopsy reports contain photos of the deceased and descriptions of the body's physical condition and of clothing and personal effects.

They also document the victim's medical history, toxicology and tissue reports, and communication from family, law enforcement and insurance companies. The chain of custody related to the body and who performed the autopsy also are usually included.

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