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Keeping the tragic truth from the public a bad idea

We live in a world of cyber-bullies, 24-hour news, YouTube and faceless commenters free to say or post anything, no matter how inane, stupid or outright vicious. Empathy and decency are often quaint notions in the anonymity of the Web.

Which makes you understand the motive behind a bill to shield the families of murder victims — even if it turns out to be overreaching and unnecessary.

Lawmakers are considering exempting photos, audio recordings and videos "that depict or record the killing of a person" from public records laws. The bill was spurred by last summer's brutal murders of Tampa police Officers Jeffrey Kocab and David Curtis.

A dashboard camera in a police cruiser captured the officers trying to arrest a passenger from a car that was pulled over in a routine traffic stop. On the video, in a split second, the man pulls a gun, shoots both the officers and bolts. The scene is clear and terrible and no doubt the strongest evidence for prosecutors seeking the death penalty for Dontae Morris.

So maybe you're thinking: I see the point of this bill. Why should loved ones have to worry that the tragedy and horror of those final moments will go viral for the world to see again and again?

And you might be surprised to hear some journalists agreeing.

Having hung around courthouses and murder trials for years, I can tell you reporters are generally pretty careful and respectful in deciding how they will or won't publish this kind of thing. But no question, the insatiable appetite of the Web — and its lack of accountability — has shifted things considerably.

Enter a sensible ruling from a judge.

When Morris' lawyers tried to keep the video from being released, Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet ruled that it could be shown and reviewed at the State Attorney's Office, but not given out.

So 17 TV and newspaper reporters gathered and watched. The video was not given to them, or to the masses or any conscience-free slob who would post it, comment on it or otherwise exploit it.

And no objection here. The judge's sensible compromise balanced sensitivity with the public's right to an independent viewing of an important, tragic case.

The bill under consideration would let a judge provide such viewings only if certain guidelines are met. It could also undercut a critical element of our justice system: public trust.

Consider the case of a police officer who shoots and kills someone, and how crucial it is for the citizens to know what happened and why. What's good about a law that automatically keeps any video, photo or audio evidence secret?

Or consider the infamous video of the 14-year-old boy in the boot camp yard surrounded by drill instructors striking his arms and kneeing him in the back before his death — images that prompted the elimination of boot camps in Florida.

One more thing about the video of Martin Lee Anderson that day: It was also front and center for a jury that ultimately decided no crime was committed.

What happened in Tampa to two police officers was beyond tragic, and you can understand wanting to protect the grieving. But a better legacy is one that takes care to protect them while letting the public see the truth about what happened.

Keeping the tragic truth from the public a bad idea 04/07/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 7, 2011 10:09pm]

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