Call secrecy ‘privacy’ and bid justice goodbye

Over the next six months a state government study committee will examine the conflict between integrity and secrecy in criminal justice, secrecy now being called “privacy.”

The chief state’s attorney again will argue for making it impossible for the public to learn what he and other prosecutors and police are doing. People who minister to crime victims again will argue for the right to accuse people of felonies anonymously, destroying due process. Journalists again will argue for openness but they will be dismissed as having a business interest in the issue.

But those who want to make criminal justice even more secretive should review the worst scandal of criminal justice in Connecticut history. The records are archived and a few witnesses survive.

The case is the cold-blooded murder of the brothers Roger and Gene Perkins by four state police officers in May 1969.

The Perkins brothers, petty criminals, aged 32 and 30, planned to burglarize a school in Norwich. An associate tipped the state police, who prepared an ambush. Knowing that one of the brothers owned a .45-caliber pistol, the troopers brought such a pistol with them to fabricate evidence if necessary. Troopers outside the school watched as the brothers entered, while the other troopers hid inside and shot the brothers in the back with a shotgun. Since the brothers were not armed, the troopers fired the pistol in the school a few times to simulate a firefight and planted the pistol between the bodies.

The troopers lied about the incident to the New London County coroner’s inquest, claiming self-defense and denying having had an informant.

The troopers might have gotten away with it except for their tipster’s talking about the case many months later to police in Maine and then some belated investigative journalism in Connecticut. Eventually the State Police Department’s own inquiry found that the troopers had lied about the informant and they were allowed to resign quietly. But, after a Superior Court grand jury was commissioned, the troopers were charged only with perjury, not murder, and, declining to contest the charges, they received only suspended sentences, never serving prison time. Two were quickly rehired by the state in the tax department, one being, of course, the son of a leading Democrat and former mayor in Middletown.

The office of the county coroner, which undertook independent investigations of untimely deaths like those of the Perkins brothers and issued public reports about them, was abolished by statute and its work was transferred to the office of the state medical examiner, which provides no such accountability.

The law was changed to prevent disclosure of autopsy reports, like the reports disclosed by the New London County coroner showing that the Perkins brothers had been shot in the back by police.

And a few weeks ago, responding to the massacre at the school in Newtown, the General Assembly and Gov. Malloy enacted legislation to prevent disclosure of police photos of murder victims at crime scenes. The ban covers everything, even photos of unarmed people shot in the back by police.

If Connecticut law as it stands now had been in force in 1969, the murder of the Perkins brothers by the state troopers would have been perfectly concealed. The law already may be concealing more crimes. That’s why it needs to be dressed up as “privacy.”

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