SACRAMENTO — A state Senate committee unanimously approved a bill Thursday that would seal the autopsy reports of murdered children.
The legislation by Senate Minority Leader Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta, was prompted by slayings in Northern California and San Diego County.
"Once the images are released, they are on the Internet forever," Angela Chavez, an aunt of 8-year-old murder victim Sandra Cantu, said in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The body of the Tracy girl was found last year stuffed inside a suitcase pulled from an irrigation pond. The girl's family is waging a court fight to keep her autopsy report sealed.
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"No one wants to remember their loved ones in an autopsy photo," Chavez said.
The Judiciary Committee sent the bill to the Appropriations Committee over the objections of media organizations that said it would restrict the public's right to know details of crimes.
The legislation would let family members request that autopsy reports and other evidence be sealed permanently if their child was killed during a crime. The reports would not be subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act.
Media lawyers argued for disclosure of the records because the material is prepared by public employees at taxpayers' expense.
Public access also is needed so the media can do its job in holding the justice system and criminals accountable, said Tom Newton, general counsel for the California Newspaper Publishers Association.
In some cases, child killers are family members, meaning the law could be used to keep investigative records secret as a way to protect relatives, he said.
Hollingsworth, however, said the media could do its job by examining other court and criminal records that would remain public.
"I believe the families' right of privacy should win out in cases like these," he said.