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Limit murder photo ban to Newtown massacre

As they try to appease the political hysteria arising from the massacre in December at the school in Newtown, Governor Malloy and most state legislators are not concerned about all of the longterm consequences of their actions. But when things calm down they should reconsider a little.

Needing reconsideration is the new state law exempting from disclosure under freedom-of-information law any photos taken by police of murder victims at crime scenes. Some people were afraid that police photos of the carnage in Newtown would find their way to the Internet, and then advocates for murder victims generally expressed resentment of the favoritism being shown to the families of the Newtown victims, so now all police photos of victims at murder scenes are to be concealed.

But the other day a state trooper shot and killed a man said to have been acting crazy and to have been waving a club while running toward officers at a house fire in Salem. This may be a case of “suicide by cop.” Or it could be something else. What if the man was shot not in the front as he rushed police but in the back as he fled? Photos of his wounds might settle the question. But the new law likely would prohibit disclosure of any such photos. Thus it would exempt police and prosecutors from accountability.

A week earlier a man was shot five times by a police officer in Cromwell. The man appears to have stolen a truck, crashed it into a few buildings, led the officer on a chase, crashed into another building, and, upon getting out of the truck, to have pulled out an umbrella and pointed it at the officer. He may have deserved what he got. But he says some of the shots hit him in the back and buttocks. If he dies, the new law may prevent public examination of his wounds and thus obstruct any testing of the police account.

Of course it’s unlikely that there was any misconduct by police in these two cases. Even if their judgment was imperfect, police have to be given some room to deal as best they can with criminals and crazies.

But Connecticut should know very well that sometimes there are wrongful shootings by police.

A reminder came the other day with the suicide of a former New Milford police officer who committed such a shooting in 1998, killing a criminal with a shot to the back as he lay restrained on the ground. The officer was convicted of murder, won a new trial, and then pleaded guilty to a lesser charge, criminally negligent homicide, losing his career, and, some think, his life. (The shooting likely was the accidental discharge of a service pistol with a hair trigger, worsened by the officer’s trying to excuse it by concocting a story that the criminal had made a sudden threatening move.) Presumably if Connecticut’s new law on murder scene photos had been in force back then, important evidence in this case would have been withheld from public review.

Other fatal shootings by police in Connecticut have been questionable and become controversial without leading to criminal charges, like the fatal shooting of a fleeing felon by an East Haven police officer during a chase in 1997.

Should public examination of such cases and holding police and prosecutors to account be impaired forever now because of fear that a gory photo will turn up somewhere on the Internet? Police and prosecutors may hope so, others not so much.

Photos of the Newtown massacre are not necessary to the public’s evaluation of the atrocity. The perpetrator killed himself and there will be no prosecution. Legislation could have considered the massacre a special case and applied itself only there.

But given the frequent mistakes and corruption in criminal justice, blanket concealment of any criminal evidence guarantees more injustice.

The photo concealment law should be amended to apply only to the Newtown case.

Chris Powell is managing editor of the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.