California lawmakers need to rethink their rush to approve legislation that would give families of murdered children the power to seal autopsy reports of those tragic deaths.
Senate Republican leader Dennis Hollingsworth is responding to heartfelt arguments of the crime victims' rights movement with his bill. His understandable effort stems from the murder of San Diego County teenager Chelsea King, whose autopsy became public.
His initial effort, Senate Bill 982, stalled when he failed to meet legislative deadlines. Rather than pursue the measure next year, Hollingsworth gutted another bill, SB 5, and inserted virtually the same language.
The measure, entitled the Deceased Child Victims' Protection and Privacy Act, is on a fast track for approval next week.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
As we wrote in June, this concept is not in the public interest. Nothing has changed, except the bill number. This well-intentioned measure threatens to impede justice.
Police and prosecutors should oppose it. They know well that most children under age 5 who are murdered died at the hands of their own parents or guardians.
The Bee relied heavily on details of autopsy reports for its series of articles about child deaths, including those involving 4-year-olds Amariana Crenshaw and Jahmaurae Allen, allegedly beaten to death by his mother's boyfriend.
In Amariana's case, The Bee sent those reports to outside coroners, who reached different conclusions about the cause of death than did Sacramento County's medical examiner. Authorities removed other foster children from the home where Amariana died and decertified her foster mother.
The issue is not photographs. Those are not public. Rather, this bill would seal written findings of medical examiners.
As it is, coroners have the power to withhold autopsies if the disclosure would impair ongoing investigations. Currently, a judge can review refusals to disclose. Under Hollingsworth's measures, parents or legal guardians would make that determination.
The crime victims' rights movement makes heartfelt arguments. But lawmakers should not abdicate more of the judicial system to emotion, particularly when the underlying information could lead to justice for the very victims Hollingsworth's bill purports to protect.