Missouri press opposes bill to make crime scene photos closed records

Monday, April 11, 2011 | 6:24 p.m. CDT; updated 12:35 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, April 12, 2011

* CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong title for Doug Crews of the Missouri Press Association.

JEFFERSON CITY — Representatives of the Missouri press stood together in opposition of a bill that would seal the public's access to crime scene videos and photos during a hearing Wednesday.

Sponsored by Rep. Scott Largent, R-Clinton, the proposal would make all official crime scene images that depict a deceased person in a state of dismemberment, decapitation, mutilation or with exposed genitalia closed records.

Doug Crews, executive director* of the Missouri Press Association, testified against the bill. He argued the sealing of the records would close off a vital avenue of journalistic inquiry into the justice system.

If the bill is passed, press access to such images will be severely limited. Under the legislation, images would be available to the media only through the permission of the deceased's nearest of kin or through the mandate of a circuit court judge.

Missouri Broadcasters' Association president Don Hicks said he was concerned this bill would make matters of personal distress a viable reason to create exceptions to Missouri's Sunshine Law.

"We're almost to the point where we're trying to legislate good taste," Hicks said. "When you start making an individual's emotional stress a matter of state interest you need to be careful."

According to the state attorney general's website, sunshine laws represent the state's "commitment to openness," and require all records be made available to the public upon their request, including the press.

John Clifton, president of the Missouri Coroners' and Medical Examiners' Association, called the release of such photographs "just wrong."

Clifton cited similar legislation passed in Georgia in 2010. The law was passed in response to an open records request by Hustler Magazine for photos depicting the nude and decapitated body of Meredith Emerson. Emerson was murdered during a hike through the North Georgia Mountains.

While there are no known instances in Missouri when the release of crime photos or videos have resulted in harm, Clifton said it is because of cases like Emerson that supporters of the bill fight for its passage.

"Just imagine if your daughter or granddaughter was the victim," Clifton said. "Would you want to see her photograph on the newspaper or on television or in a tabloid or on the Internet?"

Rep. Eileen McGeoghegan, D-St. Ann, supports the legislation and called for even further restrictions, asking about the possibility of adding the language "brutally assaulted" or "raped" to the bill.

The committee must vote on the legislation before it progresses to the House floor.

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