Friday, March 20, 2009

Barring Crime Scene Photos

By Leigh Paynter

Florida has long been known as a progressive state in open government records laws, but recently Florida lawmakers are working on creating new exemptions to the laws as reported by The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. The latest exemption is in releasing crime scene photos to the public and media.

The Current Law - "Under 1993 amendments to the Sunshine Law, public records and meetings of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches and each agency or department are open unless exempted by statute. Fla. Const. of 1885, art. I, § 24. Exemptions must be narrowly drafted and justified by public necessity. § 24(c).

The state Sunshine Law defines public records as "all documents, . . . tapes, data processing software. . . or other material, regardless of physical form or characteristics." Fla. Stat. § 119.011(1)." The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

One potential new exemption would be barring the public from viewing crime scene photos that depict dead people.

In 2005, a state appeals court granted the media, specifically The Sarasota Herald-Tribune, WFLA-TV, Tampa Tribune, and The Herald, access to the videotape and photographs of the murder and autopsy of 11 year-old Carlie Brucia.

Carlie Brucia (family photo)

© 2004 The Associated Press

The news agencies did not wish to copy, reproduce, or publish the photos. They only wanted to examine the evidence.

The trial court sealed the photos at the request of Brucia’s father, stating that the mere viewing of the photos would be too distressing to Brucia’s family. The photos showed Brucia nude from the waist down, battered, and some decomposition.

The RCFP printed the Court of Appeals Judge Altenbernd's decision:
"The broadest issue in this case is whether the State can rely upon secret evidence to obtain a conviction for a capital offense. Although Mr. Smith's trial has been broadcast on television and conducted in an open, public courtroom, these specific items of evidence have been concealed from all members of the public and the press, which is inconsistent with the purpose of public court proceedings."

Joseph Smith on Sentencing Day

© 2006 The Associated Press (Photo: Chip Litherland)

-During the Joseph Smith trial for the murder of Carlie Brucia, the state offered a large number of crime scene and autopsy photos into evidence. The jury viewed everything. Does the public and/or the press have the right to this evidence?

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