Legislative leaders and family members of Newtown victims met behind closed doors Tuesday evening in the state Capitol, in a continuing effort to negotiate changes to the state’s Freedom of Information law.
The families have been seeking to prevent the release of crime scene photos, audio of 911 tapes, the release of the death certificates, and other “graphic information” associated with the death of 20 children and six educators in December.
But the necessary changes to Connecticut’s FOI laws have encountered resistance among some lawmakers ever since the negotiations over the legislation were made public by news reports weeks ago.
Less than a week ago, lawmakers in the House “overwhelmingly” favored not acting on the issue before the legislative session ends at midnight Wednesday.
Senate Minority Leader John McKinney, Senate President Donald Williams, House Speaker Brendan Sharkey, and House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, as well as other lawmakers, met with Newtown families Tuesday night in Senate Republican offices as both chambers of the legislature were in session.
Following the meeting McKinney, who represents Newtown, described the negotiations as “very fluid” but said he expects to have a proposal addressing at least some of the families’ concerns passed before the session ends.
Negotiations over the bill have hinged on several issues including whether recordings of 911 tapes made from Sandy Hook Elementary School should be barred from release and whether the exemptions carved out in the bill should be extended to all victims of crime, rather than just the Newtown victims.
The Black and Puerto Rican caucus of the legislature has called for the FOI exemptions to apply to all crime victims. Rep. Juan Candelaria, a New Haven Democrat who chairs the caucus, was one of the lawmakers in the room for the meeting.
McKinney said he personally agreed with the position of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus.
“I’ll be very candid with you, I fall into that category. I’m a parent of three children and I don’t think any parent should have to worry about their son or daughters photos who have been murdered being released publicly and splashed all over the Internet,”
With regards to the 911 recordings, McKinney said he feels portions of audio recordings should be redacted if they depict voices of children. He said those portions should be in transcript form, with the rest of the recordings kept intact.
Following the meeting, McKinney was the only legislative leader to stop and speak with reporters. Before they met, Williams briefly spoke about the negotiations.
Williams said he believed that the bill should not prevent the release of 911 recordings.
“It’s an ongoing discussion,” he said.
McKinney, who said he has tried to represent the Newtown parents in negotiations, said the top priority of the families is to prevent the release of the photographs.
McKinney said legislative leaders are hoping to reach a “five party agreement,” meaning legislation signed off on by the four legislative caucuses and the governor’s office. The goal is to draft language that can be quickly approved in both chambers without generating a lengthy debate in the short time left before the session ends.
“We’re trying to work to get it resolved and the sooner we can do that the better. For the families that are here, for the rest of the legislative calendar and for all the members of the legislature,” he said.
Both Williams and Sharkey said they expected the legislature would take some action on the issue before the session ended.
“I’m assuming that there will be a vote before we adjourn at midnight tomorrow,” Williams said.
Although legislative leaders did not schedule additional meetings to negotiate the issue before the meeting ended, McKinney said he felt there would need to be more talks.
“There’s a lot to do on the legislative calendar, as you know, in say the last 24 hours,” he said.
McKinney cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling from 2004 in which the high court decided against the release of crime scene photographs of a former aide to President Clinton who had committed suicide.
McKinney said many of the people who were seeking the release of the photographs in that case were “conspiracy theorists and hoaxers.” The intentions of conspiracy theorists or so-called “truthers” has generated much of the concern surrounding the Newtown crime scene photos. McKinney said the Supreme Court’s decision provides state lawmakers with some precedence for preventing the release of the pictures.
“It is appropriate, in certain circumstances, to say that the right to privacy for the victims of homicide, trumps the public’s right to know,” he said.