SAN DIEGO | The privacy rights of parents of slain children won over the rights of the public to review autopsies in a landslide vote Wednesday in the California state Senate.
The Deceased Child Victims’ Protection and Privacy Act, authored by Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, San Diego Republican, is marked “urgent” and has moved rapidly through the Senate since the slayings of two teenage girls from the San Diego area. The bill won Senate approval in a 29-1 vote Wednesday and now heads for the Assembly.
The bill was introduced after the deaths of 17-year-old Chelsea King of Poway and 14-year-old Amber Dubois of Escondido, whose remains were discovered in March. Registered sex offender John Albert Gardner III was convicted of the murders and sentenced in May to life without parole.
“I believe we have found a fitting balance between protecting the privacy of families while creating a necessary system of checks and balances,” Mr. Hollingsworth said.
“I am very pleased the bill has received strong support and that my colleagues have listened to the families of these murdered children.”
Sen. Leland Yee, a Democrat who represents San Francisco and San Mateo counties, was the lone vote against it, and eight senators did not vote.
Mr. Yee is the Senate’s assistant president pro tem and co-authored San Francisco’s open government and sunshine ordinance.
“If the public really understood this issue, they would understand his perspective,” said Yee spokesman Adam Keigwin.
“Sen. Yee is one of the strongest supporters of open government. He sympathizes with the parents, but the alternative is potentially more harmful.
If this bill passes, the press won’t be able to provide any scrutiny of autopsies. There could be a parent involved in the death of a child and they could be trying to hide that autopsy information,” he said.
Senate Bill 982 would allow biological or adoptive parents, spouses or legal guardians of anyone younger than 18 statewide to seal autopsies and related evidence from public inspection in cases of homicide.
That evidence could include writings, DVDs or computer information collected during autopsies.
The bill allows for certain family members to ask for a court hearing if they oppose the information being sealed.
The measure would not cover children who are dependents of the court and would be applied only after someone has been sentenced in the killing.
“We truly feel this is an important piece of legislation for the families of the unfortunate victims” said Amber’s father, Maurice “Moe” Dubois. “It is in the best interest of the family and friends to be able to remember their loved ones as they knew them, not in an autopsy picture or description.”
Sen. Denise Ducheny, another San Diego Republican, said that in the age of blogging, autopsy information could go “all over the world” once it’s in the public stream.
“The parents should have some control over who gets to see the autopsies. Who knows what could be in there?” she said.
Existing California law bars publication of autopsy photos.
The California Newspaper Publishers’ Association and the California Broadcasters Association oppose the bill.
They say it would decrease oversight of public officials and because people other than family members could have information concerning the deaths of children.
About two dozen media outlets nationwide requested copies of autopsy information related to Chelsea and Amber. The medical examiner has denied the requests.