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California senators advance ‘urgent’ bill to seal slain children’s autopsies

- The Washington Times - Monday, July 19, 2010

SAN DIEGO | A controversial California bill that would let parents of slain children seal autopsy-related information has been unexpectedly approved by a state Senate panel during what would normally be a recess.

The California Senate, still working on the state budget, canceled its recess, which had been scheduled for July 2 to Aug. 2. Most meetings taking place have been budget-related, but the autopsy bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on an unanimous vote late last week.

As amended, Senate Bill 982 would allow biological or adoptive parents, spouses or legal guardians of homicide victims younger than 18 to seal autopsies and related evidence from public inspection. The bill gives examples of evidence, such as writings, DVDs or computer information collected during autopsies.

The proposed legislation is marked "urgent" and is designed to take effect immediately if it becomes law.

The bill originally drew fire from the California Public Defenders Association, and some victims' rights groups and children's advocates, as well as the California Newspaper Publishers Association. As of Monday, the newspaper publishers association appears to be the only remaining group in opposition.

The newspaper group opposes the amended bill because people outside the family might have information concerning the death of a child.

The bill also doesn't "respect the public's role in monitoring crime and justice nor does it respect the diversity of situations in which a child's life could be taken at the hands of another, which circumstances could remain eternally secret," according to a letter from Tom Newton, CNPA's general counsel, to state Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, San Diego Republican and the bill's sponsor.

Some opposition had stemmed from child killings committed by family members. In California last year, there were 168 murders of children under 18, in which law enforcement had identified a suspect. One-third of those homicides were thought to have been at the hands of a family member, according to statistics provided to The Washington Times by the state attorney general's office. Parents were the suspects in most cases.

S.B. 982 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.

"The request for autopsy reports on the deaths of two young girls who were raped and murdered, after the cases have been completed, is uncalled for," said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis.

She said she asked Mr. Hollingsworth to lead the fight for the bill after the court denied the teens' parents the right to seal the girls' autopsies.

The proposed legislation is now slated for a hearing in the Appropriations Committee by the end of August, according to Paul Levikow, a spokesman for Ms. Dumanis.

Registered sex offender John Albert Gardner III was sentenced May 14 for Amber and Chelsea's killings. He originally pleaded not guilty in Chelsea's case and was considered "a focus of the investigation" into Amber's killing, but not a suspect. In a plea bargain that gave him two life sentences without parole and spared him execution, Gardner confessed to the rapes and murders of both girls.

The California Public Records Act provides for public access to records unless doing so would stand in the way of agencies doing their work, such as investigations, in a confidential manner. It also recognizes certain balancing measures related to privacy of citizens. Reporters in California may not publish autopsy photos.

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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