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Fate of proposed changes to Conn. public information law uncertain in wake of Newtown shooting

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HARTFORD, Connecticut — It's questionable whether lawmakers will pass any legislation this year that would place additional restrictions on the public release of information from homicides as part of an effort to protect victims' privacy following the Newtown school massacre.

The Judiciary Committee failed to act Wednesday on one of two competing bills that created a new procedure for allowing the public to view and seek copies of images of homicide victims. It also barred the release of records of minor witnesses to a drug offense, sexual assault or a violent crime.

Rep. Gerald Fox, the panel's co-chairman, said there weren't enough votes to support the bill.

Meanwhile, a similar bill is still sitting on the Senate's calendar. But that proposal also would restrict the release of 911 calls relating to a homicide and include a description of the victim's impaired physical condition, something Senate President Donald Williams opposes.

Fox said he would like to see some kind of a compromise reached before the legislature's looming May 7 adjournment, but he's uncertain whether that will happen.

"I'd like to see some finality to it," Fox said. "If there's a way to work it through this year, I think that would be great for all involved."

There was an expectation the General Assembly this year would build upon a law enacted last year that blocked the release of crime scene photos, video and film depicting the condition of all homicide victims — not just those in Newtown — if the information could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy of the victim or victim's family members. That same law created a task force that ultimately recommended that lawmakers restrict access not only to the crime scene photos of homicide victims, but also 911 tapes. The task force suggested creating a system that would allow the public to inspect the materials.

Last year's law stemmed from concerns voiced by the families of the Sandy Hook Elementary School victims who worried that pictures of their dead loved ones would appear on the Internet. The law also prevented the release of internal police recordings describing a homicide victim's condition. But that restriction is set to expire May 7 unless the legislature takes action in the coming days.

Rep. DebraLee Hovey, R-Monroe, a member of the task force whose district includes part of Newtown, said some of the victims' families won't be upset if the General Assembly doesn't pass a new bill this year. She said the ban on releasing the crime scene photos of homicide victims — a key concern for the families — will still remain in place.

"For my constituency, I think their feeling is, doing nothing is better than doing something that's even worse or makes them more vulnerable I guess," said Hovey, referring to the proposals for allowing members of the public to view the materials and seek copies.

Hovey said she met months ago with workers and others affected by the school shooting, and they appeared emotionally prepared for the possibility that the internal police recordings might be released as of May 7.

While some members of Hovey's Newtown constituency might not mind if no action is taken this session, Hovey said she knows some urban lawmakers still want legislation enacted this year.

If the bill that sits on the Senate calendar passes, it doesn't mean the issue is finished. It requires the General Assembly's Program Review and Investigations Committee to study all aspects of victim privacy. They would have to recommend legislative changes by Jan. 1, 2015.

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