The Public Eye

Reports from the Bee's investigative team

June 11, 2010
When children die... personal anguish vs. public access

Autopsy reports can be devastating for grieving families, especially those who lose children to violent crime. But should their personal anguish keep autopsy findings private, concealed from public inspection?

A bill backed by the San Diego District Attorney's Office would allow family members of child crime victims to request that autopsy reports be sealed -- a proposal vigorously opposed by First Amendment advocates.

The bill by Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, was drafted after family members of a murdered Southern California teen argued this year that some details of the criminal investigation, including the girl's autopsy, should be withheld. In April, a San Diego judge denied the request by the family of Chelsea King, 17, of Poway who was killed this year by a man who admitted to murdering Chelsea as well as a 14-year-old Escondido girl a year earlier.

Opponents of the measure, SB 982, are citing The Bee's coverage of a 4 1/2-year-old foster child's death as an example of why such records must remain open.

The Bee's investigation into the unsolved death of Amariana Crenshaw raised new questions about how the girl died and the quality of care she received in her foster home. After reviewing the child's autopsy at The Bee's request, several well-known forensic experts challenged the Sacramento County coroner's findings and raised the possibility the girl was already dead when the house fire broke out in January 2008.

Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association, which opposes the bill, said he has researched media coverage of Chelsea's murder and found no offensive or "extremely graphic" reporting based on the autopsy. Newton said he believed the bill is "an emotional reaction to a tragic death" that would have unintended consequences for both the public and for law enforcement, which often relies on citizen input to solve crimes.

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