HARTFORD, Conn. — Family members of two Newtown school shooting victims made an impassioned plea Wednesday that 911 recordings of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School be kept from public scrutiny.
Bill Sherlach, whose wife Mary was among the six adults and 20 children shot to death on Dec. 14, told members of the Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public’s Right to Know that he’s willing to support a compromise: the release of a written account of the 911 calls made that day, as long as the audio is not made public. “Transcripts can rely all the information that the public wants without having to hear the sounds of a slaughter in the background,” he said.
In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings, state lawmakers approved legislation that bars the public release of crime scene photos and other evidence that could be viewed as an invasion of the victim’s privacy. The task force is examining that law and other issues relating to the delicate balance between the public’s right to know and the rights of crime victims. It is expected to issue recommendations in early 2014.
“Crime scene pictures that are currently protected need to stay protected and I ask that that same protection be extended to the 911 calls,” Nicole Hockley told the panel. Hockley’s 6-year-old son, Dylan, was among those killed.
The Associated Press sought access to the 911 recordings and other documents related to the shootings under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. Last month, the Freedom of Information Commission ordered the Newtown Police Department to release the 911 calls. On Wednesday, Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky, who is leading the investigation into shootings, filed an appeal to the decision in Superior Court.
Both Hockley and Sherlach told the task force they cherish the twin principles of open government and the public’s right to know.
“I am a conservative and the idea of an open government resonates with me,” Sherlach said. But, he added, “there must be some balance between making sure the public’s right to know is sustained while the victims of certain atrocities right to privacy is also honored.”
Hockley said she also supports transparency in government. “I believe in the public’s right to know information and hold the government accountable for its performance but I also believe that this right can be exercised fully and competently in a way that also provides balance,” she said.
But with Sandy Hook, the principle of protecting the families from the pain of seeing photos of their murdered loved ones trumps the public right to know, Hockley said. There are “no lessons to be learned about what each adult and child looked like after receiving multiple gunshot wounds … there is no warranted need for this information.”
The fractured media landscape makes those protections all the more warranted, Sherlach told the task force. “With the Internet, bloggers, truthers and conspiracy advocates, any information available will be published … over and over again,” he said.
Hockley said she has received photos of dead children’s bodies in the mail. She now lives in fear of Dylan’s older brother coming across information related to the Newtown massacre. “Without protection, what is he going to find first?” she asked. “The awful hoaxers, who are still actively targeting us with hate-filled messages? The countless news stories, some with balanced, sensitive reports; others riddled with speculation and incorrect facts? Or photos of his little brother with five gunshot wounds to his torso and head?”
James H. Smith, a member of the task force and president of the Connecticut Council on Freedom of Information, said keeping documents related to a crime secret could severely hamper the media’s role as a watchdog guarding against government incompetence or malfeasance.
“I’ve been struggling with other families that will be in the future victims of violent crime,” Smith said “We’ve heard many examples of families whose members were murdered but police or judicial response was incorrect … my concern is the families in the future who are the victim of crime and then of official misconduct. If we hide all these records from everyone forever, how will those families find justice?”
Sherlach said such decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis. “There is a balance,” he said.
He reminded members of the panel that, for the Sandy Hook families, like all crime victims, the decision of what to release and what to protect from public scrutiny has enormous implications.
“Your work here will at some point in time end and you will move on,” Sherlach said. “The result of your recommendation and subsequent legislation will live on forever in the lives of 26 families involved.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services