- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The government does not have to release death scene photographs from the 1993 suicide of White House Deputy Counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. because it would be painful to his family and intrude on their privacy, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The unanimous decision came in a challenge by California lawyer Allan Favish, who said he wanted the photos to pursue accusations that Mr. Foster had been murdered.

The ruling sets a precedent that could make it more difficult to use a public-records law to gain access to autopsy photos and other sensitive law-enforcement records.

The high court ruled that there was no reasonable evidence to support the accusations. Mr. Foster, 48, had been a longtime friend of President Bill Clinton and a law firm partner of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat.

“Family members have a personal stake in honoring and mourning their dead and objecting to unwarranted public exploitation that, by intruding upon their own grief, tends to degrade the rites and respect they seek to accord to the deceased person who was once their own,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote.

The court said the law allowing the government to withhold records that could “constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy” applied, in part, to the survivors, with Justice Kennedy noting that even if family members did object to the release of information, a court could order it if there was evidence of government impropriety.

Such was not the case in the Foster death, he said.

Separate investigations by independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr, special counsel Robert B. Fiske Jr., U.S. Park Police and two congressional committees concluded that Mr. Foster committed suicide July 20, 1993, by shooting himself in the head at Fort Marcy Park in Virginia.

Mr. Starr’s October 1997 report, released by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, said Mr. Foster had been clinically depressed when he put a .38-caliber pistol in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He had written a note just days before in which he said he “was not meant for the job or the spotlight of public life in Washington. Here ruining people is considered sport.”

Mr. Foster’s body was found on a grassy incline at Fort Marcy, a Civil War-era battlefield park overlooking the Potomac River. It was slumped near a cannon. A 1913-vintage revolver, which the report said belonged to the Foster family, was in his hand.

The Starr report included the findings of veteran law-enforcement officers, career prosecutors, forensics experts and medical authorities, many of whom were not involved in the prior inquiries, and was aimed at debunking widespread conspiracy theories, including suggestions of a White House coverup in the death.

Mr. Foster was handling several personal legal matters for the Clintons at the time of his death.

Mr. Favish had sought the photos under a Freedom of Information Act request, seeking the release by Mr. Starr’s office of five original Polaroids of Mr. Foster’s body while it was still at Fort Marcy. Mr. Favish said the government’s official reports on the death were not credible, challenging the medical evidence cited in the Starr report.

Mr. Foster’s family had joined with the government in opposing the release of the photos, and the Bush administration argued that a victory for Mr. Favish could force the release of other sensitive information, including autopsy photos of U.S. soldiers killed overseas and the pictures of the remains of unidentified September 11 attack victims.

Thousands of documents and more than 100 photos already have been released in the Foster investigation.

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