Calif. allows sealing murdered children's records

Autopsy reports of slain children could be sealed permanently under a bill signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in response to several murders of children and teenagers in California over the last year.

Schwarzenegger spokesman Matt Connelly said Tuesday the governor signed the bill to protect the privacy of victims' families and prevent more suffering for them.

The law lets family members request that autopsies and other evidence be kept private if their child was killed during a crime. The request could be made only after a conviction, under the bill by Senate Minority Leader Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Murrieta.

The California Newspaper Publishers Association, opposed the bill, SB5. However, Jim Ewert, a lawyer with the association, said it was narrowed from a more sweeping original version that might have protected killers who murdered their own family members.

The bill was amended to prohibit a family member from asking that the records be sealed if he or she has been charged with any involvement in the child's death.

Though the records would not be subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act, they could become public if introduced as evidence during a trial. The records also could not be kept secret if the victim was a ward of the juvenile justice or Child Protective Services systems.

As amended, "it protects public access in just about every situation except where there's a murder by a stranger," Ewert said.

The law, which takes effect immediately, could prompt a legal challenge depending on how it is interpreted by coroners or other agencies, Ewert said.

Hollingsworth's bill was sought by San Diego District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis on behalf of the families of Chelsea King and Amber Dubois, both of whom were raped and murdered in San Diego by a convicted child molester who now is serving a life sentence. It was also backed by the family of 8-year-old Sandra Cantu of Tracy, whose body was found last year stuffed inside a suitcase pulled from an irrigation pond.

Hollingsworth said in a statement that he is glad Schwarzenegger agreed "there is simply no convincing public interest in the broadcasting of lurid autopsy documents that should prevail over the rights of a family to keep private the final, desperate moments of their child's life."