Petit seeks more limits on Conn. autopsy releases

February 28, 2011 5:53:27 PM PST
Dr. William Petit, the sole survivor of the deadly 2007 Cheshire home invasion, called on Connecticut lawmakers Monday to further tighten rules for the release of certain autopsy records, but legislators were told that such reports are already sealed from public disclosure.

Petit, who appeared before the General Assembly's Judiciary Committee, testified in favor of a bill that would allow the parent or guardian of a murdered child to seal their child's autopsy reports from public disclosure. He said it would be hurtful to the victims' families to see the autopsy photos and gruesome details from an autopsy report published.

The bill was offered by state Sen. Michael McLachlan, R-Danbury.

Petit, whose wife and two daughters were killed in the home invasion, said the chief medical examiner's office has done a good job over the years refusing inappropriate requests for autopsy reports and kept them sealed after a child killer has been convicted and sentenced. But Petit said he worries that could change.

"I fear over time these requests will increase, as we've seen in other states such as California and Pennsylvania," he said.

Authorities have said two men, Steven Hayes and Joshua Komisarjevsky, killed Jennifer Hawke-Petit and her two daughters, 11-year-old Michaela and 17-year-old Hayley, in their home during a home invasion. Hayes was convicted and condemned to death in November. Komisarjevsky is awaiting trial.

According to Dr. Wayne Carver, the chief medical examiner, autopsy reports are made available to the victim's family, government agencies, public health authorities, insurance companies, parties in civil litigations and treating physicians.

Individuals can obtain them with written consent from the family or by court order.

Michelle Cruz, the state's child advocate, said her office favors the legislation in order to prevent the autopsy reports from being released after a defendant is convicted. If autopsy reports are held by a police department - one of the handful of entities allowed to receive the documents from the medical examiner - Cruz said the reports can ultimately be sought by members of the public under the state's Freedom of Information Act after the case has been closed.

"There is no current mechanism for the police to say, 'These are exempt records; you can't have a copy of them.' There's just no mechanism," she said. "Once it's transformed into a police file, it's transformed into a police record and it's available. And so we're just trying to make sure that the intent of the original statute, which is to exempt these documents from review to the public, is seen all the way through the system."

Lisa Fein-Siegel, counsel to the FOI Commission, disagreed.

"The commission has never under any circumstances released autopsy reports," said Fein-Siegel, adding there is no time limit on the sealing of autopsy reports and they are always confidential under the medical examiner's jurisdiction, even after a case has been closed. "The limitations on autopsy reports don't change with a criminal prosecution."

Fein-Siegel said that rule applies to police departments, as well. Even though they are required by law to release all public records concerning a criminal matter after an investigation is closed, autopsy reports remain exempt from that, she said. Asked whether she was aware of a news reporter in Connecticut being able to obtain a copy of an autopsy report, Fein-Siegel said she personally does not know of any who've been able to obtain a report through official channels.

McLachlan, who could not give a specific example of information from an autopsy report being released to the media, said he was approached by Petit to propose the legislation, which is similar to a law recently passed in California. While many details of the Petit murders, as well as some photos from the crime scene, were entered into evidence at Hayes' recent trial and are now considered public information, McLachlan said he's concerned that information from the autopsy reports was leaked to the media before the trial.

Also, he said he is concerned that the other entities allowed to obtain the autopsy reports might release them to the public, though Carver said they are legally bound to keep the information confidential and he was not aware of that happening.

"We want to be sure that that doesn't occur," McLachlan said.

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