By Wayne Jebian
When Rep. Angel Arce’s father, Angel Arce Torres, was struck and killed during a hit-and-run in Hartford back in 2008, Arce and his family had no choice but to relive the horrific scene over and over again. The disturbing incident, captured on videotape, barraged them not only on television, but around the internet on popular networks like YouTube and Facebook. That repeated trauma prompted Arce to take action on a piece of legislation focusing on the privacy of crime victims, which was being advocated by the families of the Newtown shooting victims.
By making their case before the Connecticut General Assembly to prevent crime scene photos from being released to the public, the shooting victims’ families were building on a controversial legal precedent. However, it was Arce (D-Hartford) and the Black and Latino Caucus who argued for a categorical exception for all families of future crime victims, including Latinos in high-crime, urban areas, and opened up the argument to fighting for a universal standard.
The addition to the Newtown families’ bill, which passed at the end of the legislative session, made it a much stronger bill from a legal standpoint. A prior case said that such an exception to Freedom of Information (FOI) laws was permissible – a position that makes some journalists and jurists uncomfortable.
Families of all homicide victims — from the streets of Bridgeport to the mansions of Cheshire — are now covered under the law, which now creates a clear and understandable standard for all future incidents. The only people who might be unhappy about this are some journalists and those who believe that graphic photos galvanize people to action.
When Arce argued to modify the Newtown families’ bill in front of the General Assembly, it brought all of the emotions from his own family’s tragedy back to the surface, but he did it so that victims of future killings would not have to publicly argue for their own exceptions. More than a week after the bill passed, Arce was still shaken as he related his personal experiences.
“The video [of my father] was posted all over the place. What do you think my family went through? It was painful. It was not an easy thing. It was depressing,” he recalled. “That was just a hit and run. Now imagine when it’s a kid full of bullet holes. How do you think those families are going to feel? How are those families going to cope with this — the brothers and sisters — just kids.”
While Arce wanted to make it clear to the public, and to the Newtown families, that he would not equate his own experience with that of parents who have seen their children gunned down. However, he attempted to explain that his experience has sensitized him to the issue, made him think about the balance between families’ rights and the public’s right to know, and has informed his work as a legislator in Hartford.
“I don’t think anyone has the right to post photos of crime victims. Let the families have their privacy, and let them be the ones to decide if the pictures should be posted or not,” he said. “I understand freedom of information, but not on this kind of thing. I know this is a free country, but families have rights, too.”
The prior exception to Freedom of Information came in the case of Vincent Foster, a Clinton Administration official whose death was ruled a suicide. The federal appeals court for the District of Columbia said that protecting the family from further trauma was more important than any right the public may have had to crime scene and autopsy photos.
Because Foster was a government official, an argument could be made that the public did have a right to all information. However, the children and teachers of Newtown were not government officials, nor are the vast majority of victims of violent crimes. “I am convinced that nobody needs to see such disturbing graphic crime scene photos,” said Brendan Sharkey, Speaker of the Connecticut State House of Representatives.
Had the death of Vincent Foster not already set a precedent, the Newtown families might have had to relive their tragedy by taking their case to court, and Connecticut residents would have been in their corner. “We owe it to all these families to protect them from further pain,” Sharkey said. “It is impossible to ignore the concerns of the Newtown families, and in fact families of all homicide victims.”
Arce said the collateral damage of retraumatization is difficult to understand for those who haven’t been there. “I had a sixteen year-old niece, and when that video was shown on TV, she had to be taken to the hospital for a nervous breakdown. Imagine little kids related to those victims at Sandy Hook. Imagine the families of the Newtown kids sitting there and all of a sudden something is on Facebook or whatever: photos of kids full of bullet holes.”
He added that proliferation of social media has only made the dissemination of these types of images worse. He said, “As we were passing this law, I believe it was on the same day, there was an accident where a motorcycle ran into a taxi. The guy went through a window; he was hanging there dead. Then they go and post this on Facebook. Imagine you go on Facebook, and you see this about one of your family members, and you don’t even know that this has happened?”
Sharkey agreed with Arce that social media has compounded the potential for added trauma to victims’ families. “In light of the internet age, the balance between privacy and freedom of information needs to be reexamined and updated,” he said.
“They post these things up on Facebook before the family has been informed,” Arce said. “People can be cruel.”
By Wayne Jebian