Bills by state Sen. Mayes Middleton and state Rep. Greg Bonnen that would allow relatives of crime victims to view case information such as autopsy reports that are generally withheld from the public might be well-intentioned, but it’s deeply flawed.
Senate Bill 435 and identical House Bill 3729 would create an odd loophole in the Texas Public Information Act, allowing prosecutors to disclose details of crimes to victims and their immediate relatives but continue to withhold those details from the public at large.
The state’s information laws assume all information held by the government belongs to and should be available to the public unless there’s good reason for the government to withhold it.
One of those exemptions allows police and prosecutors to withhold many details of crimes for the good reason that doing so might undermine the investigation and prosecution of those crimes.
It’s hard to see a good reason for the public to support this change, however, and there’s no wide public call for it.
The bills are a custom job meant to help Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady, who has been feeling the wrath of relatives of Santa Fe High School shooting victims.
Some of them want details Roady can’t disclose and he’d apparently like to grant them private briefings, probably in hopes of tamping down their anger at him and his office.
That’s a professional problem that comes with Roady’s office and with the government paycheck. It’s not something that can or should be corrected by creating two classes of the public — insiders and outsiders — under the open government law.
One problem is disclosure of the information to anyone is disclosure of the information — period — with all the same risk of tainting the process.
The bills attempt, feebly, to resolve that fundamental problem by suggesting prosecutors have family members sign non-disclosure agreements.
But what’s going to happen when the grieving relatives of crime victims violate those agreements by doing what people do and tell somebody what they saw, who then tells somebody else, etc., etc., etc.? Is the state going to prosecute them? Clap them in irons? Sue them? Hardly.
Roady already has disclosed to some Santa Fe families information his office is withholding from the public at large. Some of that wound up in a documentary film about the shooting.
This bill would ensure a whole lot more of that.
So, along with creating two classes of the public, the bill would elevate one select subset of the public to be among the gatekeepers who decide which other members of the public can have access to the public’s information.
That raises a question: If the government is comfortable disclosing information to a select few, despite the same risk to investigations and prosecutions, what’s the rationale for keeping the exemption at all?
We’d likely support a bill repealing the whole thing.
The hard fact is dealing with crimes like mass murder isn’t a family affair. It hasn’t been since the rule of law supplanted blood feuds as the mechanism for justice. Such a law would be a step backward.
Dealing with crime is a public affair, a matter for the state, which uses public money collected from us all to investigate, adjudicate, incarcerate and compile and curate all the information at issue.
No one has a more compelling interest in it than the public, and no one should have greater rights in it than the public.
Just for the record, The Daily News always has opposed attempts to create subsets of the public in the information laws. We opposed the creation of laws granting journalists special access to information for that very reason.
We believe there is just the public — one homogeneous thing — and we are part of it, not apart from it and certainly not above it.
The real problem is that accused killer Dimitrios Pagourtzis hasn’t faced justice. That’s what the families are frustrated and angry about, and reasonably so.
The only cure is to get him on his feet in court and to get this slaughter of innocents out of limbo and into history where it belongs.
Perhaps that’s not possible, but these bills are no adequate substitute for the justice those families want and deserve.
The public would be best served if the bills became the subject of postmortem assessment rather than the law of the land.
Mr. Smith, it's clear you've never lost a relative to murder.
Welcome to the discussion.
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