December will no doubt bring all the customary joys of the holidays, but this year it will be darkened by another special day: The 14th will be the first anniversary of the massacre of 20 children and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, a crime so heinous that it was unimaginable until it actually happened. And the 31st is the deadline for a state task force, created in the wake of Sandy Hook, to advise the General Assembly on how to strike a balance between victim privacy and the public’s right to know.
At issue is a law (Public Act 13-311), passed hastily at the end of the last legislative session, that threw a blanket of secrecy not just over Sandy Hook, but over all homicide investigations in the state, for all time. And now the Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know is pretty much deadlocked between those who want to maintain a high level of secrecy in homicide cases and those who believe that such secrecy will inevitably lead to cover-ups and miscarriages of justice.
Last week, relatives of those who were murdered in Newtown were finally allowed to see a summary report on the crime, a report that is supposed to be made available to the public soon. But that 40-page summary, released by Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky, is not to be confused with the full, 2,000-page state police report.
There’s a great deal to learn about such a monstrous crime, but so far there’s a lot we don’t know. The main reason given for keeping a lid on information such as this is a sincere wish to spare the feelings of the relatives, feelings that most of us can only dimly imagine. What could be worse, after all, than losing a child — or a grandchild, or a mother, or a wife — in this way?
“Unfortunately, there is no way to ease the pain and undo the crimes” of Sandy Hook, as one task force witness testified. All we can do now is to seek justice, invoking “the public’s right to monitor and criticize its government’s performance.”
With that purpose in mind, here are some additional points that were made in testimony before the task force:
• At first glance, “victim privacy” sounds like a good idea. After all, no one wants to inflict more pain on those who have already suffered so much. Indeed, the state Constitution states that crime victims are entitled to “fairness and respect throughout the criminal justice process.”
But the Constitution never mentions “victim privacy” — because, under our system, society as a whole is considered to be the victim of any crime, which is why it is society, not crime victims, that administers justice. This is a price we pay for civilization; the alternative is the vendetta, and chaos.
• Furthermore, weakening Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Act will prevent the public from learning how an emergency was handled, and perhaps how to keep it from happening again. Who did what, and when? What worked, and what didn’t? Weakening FOIA will “simply provide a thick veil for those seeking to cover their tracks …”
• All information gathered in a crime investigation belongs to the public. Should anyone have “the power to decide who is worthy to receive such information”?
• Access to the records of criminal investigations has helped free people who were wrongfully imprisoned and helped reveal child abuse and botched murder investigations. Shall we now cut off such access?
• The default position of those who control such documents is to withhold them from scrutiny by the press and the public. They tend to “err on the side of secrecy … whether that secrecy is warranted or not.”
The painful memory of the 2007 home invasion and multiple murder in Cheshire also suggests lessons for the present. Reasonable people may ask — without meaning to impugn anyone in law enforcement — why there was never a thorough, minute-by-minute analysis of that crime and how it was handled, followed by a full report to the public. What did the police learn from that tragedy? We don’t know.
We should also note that the Cheshire crime took place long before Public Act 13-311, and that plenty of horrifying photos were shown to the jurors — but those photos were never published or shown on TV. They did not become “fodder for the evening news,” as Sedensky seems to believe will happen in the case of Sandy Hook.
The 2013 law, as it stands, closes crime scene photos and some 911 tapes to the press and the public. The legislature can change that law during its next session, or let it stand. Sedensky has been forceful in urging that secrecy be maintained. He is certainly not alone, with support coming from Newtown First Selectwoman Pat Llorda and members of the task force, including State Sen. Len Fasano, R-34th District. On the other side of the question are other task force members and many distinguished witnesses.
“Connecticut is heading down a dark path” one witness warned the task force, with a draconian secrecy law that was passed without a hearing and a governor who seems determined to hamstring the Freedom of Information Commission.
Connecticut was a pioneer in making public information available to the people, and this newspaper has been instrumental in keeping it that way — through the efforts of former Publisher Carter H. White, Publisher Eliot C. White and former Executive Editor James H. Smith, who is president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information and a member of the task force.
We urge the General Assembly to heed those on the task force who believe in open government.
All of the quotations above are taken from testimony given before the Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know. For complete transcripts and more information, go to http://www.cga.ct.gov/gae/VPTF/taskforce.asp.