Bill to seal autopsy reports is misguided
California lawmakers should reject a bill that would give families of murdered children the power to keep autopsy reports sealed from public view. Although the desire to shield traumatized parents from further pain is understandable, SB 982 would undermine public oversight of the criminal justice system and in the end would do little to protect families.
The bill, by Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta), is one of several legislative responses to the recent high-profile killings of teenagers Chelsea King and Amber Dubois. Prosecutors argue that it’s an important step to protect the privacy of the families of young murder victims. Parents and siblings, they say, should not have to suffer further by viewing and hearing media reports that delve into the gruesome details of the attacks using information obtained from autopsies.
Photographs of murdered minors, which could easily be exploited in newspapers, television and on the Internet, already are sealed. Autopsy reports, by contrast, detail the cause of death and help describe the crime, and provide the public with vital information not only about killings that occur in their neighborhoods but about the police work and prosecutions that they pay for and that they should retain power to oversee.
That kind of oversight is not merely theoretical. After a verdict was rendered in the 2008 killing of 4-year-old Amariana Crenshaw, the Sacramento Bee used autopsy reports to uncover evidence of lapses by Sacramento County’s Child Protective Services, which eventually admitted its failure to examine multiple claims of abuse and mistreatment at the hands of Crenshaw’s mother. The reporting was possible because the autopsy report remained in the control of the judge rather than Crenshaw’s mother.
The bill has been amended to permit judges to revoke parents’ power to seal autopsy reports if the parents were deemed to have had a role in the child’s death. But even as amended, it would allow parents to block post-verdict investigations into their own behavior and would give them inappropriate power to prevent crucial investigations into the operations of public agencies.
In the name of privacy and victims’ rights, family members of crime victims have taken over some of the role that California formerly reserved to judges and others charged with protecting the integrity of the criminal justice system. That transfer may offer family members some consolation, but it does nothing to prevent crime or to help law enforcement officials apprehend perpetrators, and it has endangered the public’s ability to know how its agents are performing.
There may be instances in which the public’s interest in sealing an autopsy report outweighs its interest in its dissemination, but those are determinations best left to the judicial system and not to family members.