Putting a Face on an Autopsy

A proposed California law that would allow parents of murdered children to seal their detailed autopsy reports was overwhelmingly approved by the State Senate today. This bill would not even be on the table, if not for the deaths of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois. The bill now moves on to the Assembly where it is expected to have the same, overwhelming support.

Supporters of it say families deserve it. They not only suffer the loss of their children in an horrific way, but then they have to endure knowing that the gory details of how they were tortured and killed are being poured over by reporters, or private investigators or anyone who has a twisted need to read that kind of violent roadmap.

During the Chelsea King tragedy, after her body was found, I had the opportunity to interview Chelsea's parents, Brent and Kelly King. One of the questions that came out of our discussion involved how they might deal with having to explain to their son about what happened. Both parents told me that they were not sure they wanted to know all the details. They didn't know if they could live with that kind of image in their minds and their hearts. I don't know if they ever read the autopsy report. I cannot imagine how difficult that would be.

Yet, there is an argument to make this document created by a public agency concerning a public event, open to the public for scrutiny. One lawmaker voted no today. Senator Leland Yee of San Francisco says the autopsy report is the only source of information for the public to know how someone died. He says this bill would make it impossible for the press to provide oversight of a government agency. In fact, in the cases of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois there are 22 separate media requests still on file to gain access to their autopsy reports. It is the job of the press to ask and report. It is the job of the legislature to make laws that serve the media and the parents. One note, KUSI did not support the lawsuits filed to open up the autopsy reports in the King and Dubois cases, believing there was little to learn from them and that the protection of the family's privacy was more important in this instance.

There is one other argument and it is articulated by Terry Francke, the co-founder of Californians Aware which advocates for open government. He says all evidence presented to a jury in homicide cases must be available to the public. He claims that's part of constitutional law. He said, “They are kept transparent because just as justice delayed is justice denied, justice unseen is justice uncertain.”

Categories: Becker’s Digital Notebook