Feel-Good Bill Signed to Cure a Non-Problem

PUBLIC INFORMATION – A bill allowing the families of murdered children to request that the autopsy reports be sealed was signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger Monday, but these reports are already treated as confidential.


The bill was introduced in the wake of the murders of two San Diego County teens  by John Albert Gardner in 2009 and early 2010. Senator Dennis Hollingsworth, who sponsored the bill, said 22 Public Records Act requests were made for Chelsea King’s autopsy records and all were denied.

He said in an article in the North County Times that the intention of his bill is to keep families from being “victimized a second time” by having their murdered children’s autopsy reports released to the media.

Terry Francke, general counsel for the nonprofit First Amendment group Californians Aware, said the law was unnecessary because authorities already are allowed to seal autopsy records when they are part of a homicide investigation.

"I think it's an instance of elected politicians exploiting a very sad situation and identifying a problem that doesn't exist and coming up with a cure," Francke said.

Amber Dubois, 14, was abducted by Gardner as she walked to Escondido High School in February 2009. Her body was found a year later in a shallow grave near the Pala Indian Reservation.

This past February, Gardner grabbed Chelsea King as she jogged at a Rancho Bernardo park. He stashed the 17-year-old Poway girl's body near Lake Hodges.

In Senate committee hearings held in July, attorneys for media advocacy organizations, such as the California Newspaper Publishers Association, argued for disclosure of the records because the material is prepared by public employees at taxpayers' expense.

Public access also is needed so the media can do its job in holding the justice system and criminals accountable, said Tom Newton, general counsel for the CNPA.

In some cases, child killers are family members, meaning the law could be used to keep investigative records secret as a way to protect relatives, he said.

Hollingsworth, however, said the media could do its job by examining other court and criminal records that would remain public.

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