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Should the Newtown Victims Get Their Emmett Till Moment?

The dangers of a new Connecticut law that seals crime-scene photos

Getty/John Moore

While Washington’s been consumed with grand and abstract questions about the limits of privacy in the digital age, Connecticut has, with relatively little notice, taken action in the privacy arena with far more immediate and concrete consequences for the country: barring the release of any images of victims or graphic 911-call transcripts from the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre. The legislation, which passed overwhelmingly last week (163 to 4) and went into effect the moment Gov. Dannel Malloy signed it, raises serious questions about the public’s right to know, given that it was written broadly to bar release of such images and transcripts from any future homicide. But it has also underscored a tension that those trying to reform gun laws have wrestled with for years: where to draw the line between common decency and sensitivity to grieving family members, on the one hand, and on the other the need for people and legislators to confront the brutal realities of gun violence?

The prompt for the legislation was a March piece in Huffington Post by Michael Moore, the provocateur documentary filmmaker, who argued that the release of pictures taken inside Sandy Hook by police investigators could have a transformative effect on the gun-control debate. Moore compared the potential impact to that of the 1955 picture of the horribly disfigured 14-year-old Emmett Till in his coffin, which his mother had left deliberately open so that the world could see what his killers had done to him—a decision that had the intended effect, galvanizing support for the civil rights movement among heretofore apathetic northerners. “When the American people see what bullets from an assault rifle fired at close range do to a little child's body, that's the day the jig will be up for the NRA,” he wrote. “It will be the day the debate on gun control will come to an end. There will be nothing left to argue over. It will just be over. And every sane American will demand action.”

This predictably got the attention of people in Connecticut, including family members of those killed at Sandy Hook who began pressing state legislators to bar release of images from the scene (among them were the parents of Daniel Barden, the subject of a devastating Washington Post profile last Sunday.) “For the families and the community, we just want to get back to a normal life and that would be a horrendous offense to the families,” Dorrie Carolan, co-president of the Newtown Parent Connection support group told Fox News. “There’s no need for any of that… It’s going to be a long healing process and to dredge up pictures of the crime scene would not be a good thing. We want to remember the little angels as they were, with their happy expressions and faces and you want to think of the teachers trying to hold them safe and not to see the pictures of their bodies. I think it would be terrible.”

Underlying the family members’ simple and understandable plea, though, was a more complicated reality: that several of them have since the December shootings been deliberately explicit in the way they talk about what happened, to build the case for action that could prevent at least some future gun homicides. (Some of the family members are back in Washington on that mission, meeting Wednesday with House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor about the bill to expand background checks for gun purchases, which advocates still hope to revive after it was blocked in the Senate in April.) Veronique Pozner left open the coffin of her son Noah, who was shot 11 times, with only a cloth covering the ruined bottom part of his face. “There was no mouth left,” she told the Jewish Daily Forward. “His jaw was blown away.”

Asked why she wanted to see his body, Pozner told the newspaper: “I owed it to him as his mother—the good, the bad, the ugly. It is not up to me to say I am only going to look at you and deal with you when you are alive, that I am going to block out the reality of what you look like when you are dead. And as a little boy, you have to go in the ground. If I am going to shut my eyes to that I am not his mother. I had to bear it. I had to do it.” Asked why she requested that Gov. Malloy view the open casket at the funeral, she said: “I needed it to have a face for him. If there is ever a piece of legislation that comes across his desk, I needed it to be real for him.” Similar instinct has driven other family members in how they talk about the shootings. In testifying in Hartford on behalf of limits on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines, Neil Heslin, whose son Jesse was killed, said of the scene at Sandy Hook: “That wasn’t just a killing. That was a massacre. Those children and those victims were shot apart. And my son was one of them.”

Of course, talking in unflinching terms about the destruction that Adam Lanza’s semi-automatic AR-15 rifle wreaked inside the school, or even having a discreetly managed open-coffin funeral, is different than public disclosure of horrifically gruesome images from the crime scene. There is no outward sign of any debate among the families about whether or not to bar the pictures from view, and the gun-control advocates I spoke with all said there was zero effort whatsoever on their part to prevent the legislation from becoming law. As they see it, the best way to keep making the case is with direct appeals by family members and other advocates, and with ads like the quite powerful new ones attacking senators Kelly Ayotte and Jeff Flake for their votes against the background check bill. “The families should have the lead say on this,” said Ladd Everitt of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. “It’s their children or relatives that are involved, that these photographs are of, and if it should be anybody’s call it should be their call, and some have stepped forward very vocally and said this [law] would be respectful of their lost loved ones… We can have a hypothetical debate about what effect those pictures would have on the gun debate, but we’re not going to stand up and say our word outweighs theirs.”

As a result, it has been left to the tiny minority of state legislators who voted against the legislation to make the unpopular case for why it is wrong to hide the images from public view. I reached one of them, Democratic Senator Ed Meyer, as he was visiting a children’s museum in Middletown, Connecticut, with two of his 13 grandchildren. He said he understood entirely why many of the Newtown families had asked for the images to be barred from view, but said that public interest argued for at least further debate on the matter. For evidence of the impact of painful imagery, he cited not only Emmett Till but also the famous 1972 photograph of the naked 9-year-old girl running screaming from napalm bombs dropped by the South Vietnamese Army, the videotapes of the Rodney King beating, and photographs from the liberation of Buchenwald. “The problem I have with it is that once you try to suppress ugliness, and what Lanza did is totally ugly, you never really understand it and I’m a person who believes you put a big spotlight on this conduct so that it’s understood and history doesn’t repeat itself,” Meyer said. “This law goes into the spirit of concealment.” During the hearings in Hartford on the state’s new gun-control laws, Meyer said, gun-rights advocates made the case that assault weapons were merely “sporting rifles”; the obvious retort to this, he said, was that he had “talked to one parent who said his child’s left arm had been blown off by Lanza’s AR-15.” “I feel the reality of those weapons is made much more real by showing photographs of the incredible damage they did to the human body,” he told me. “Photographs and recordings are very important to our history and once you suppress them, you really risk history repeating itself. I totally understood the families’ feelings, and if I were a parent or grandparent [of victims] I would probably be arguing the same thing—I totally respect that. But speaking as a state senator, I think we have to take in a bigger picture… When it comes down to the point of suppressing this kind of horrific criminal act, I don’t think it advances the public interest. We have to put the public interest first, not just the empathy we have with the parents.”

Also protesting the new law are many of the state’s newspapers—not because they had any intention of running pictures of the Sandy Hook scene, but because the legislation was crafted in secrecy, and because it is written to apply to all future homicides. (Some state officials wanted it even broader than it ended up, including placing homicide death certificates out of reach.) Particularly outspoken has been Chris Powell, the longtime editor of the Journal Inquirer, a feisty 35,000-circulation daily based in Manchester where I briefly worked as a reporter. “Crime scene and autopsy photos and videos probably are not necessary to understanding what happened in Newtown, nor to validation of the official account of most murders,” he wrote after the law passed. “But crime scene and autopsy photos and videos certainly are necessary to understanding some murders and to guarding against official misconduct and lies. Famous examples from history of the necessity to disclose the image evidence of crime include the assassination of President Kennedy and the mass murder of Polish military officers by the Soviet Union during World War II. But in recent years so many murder convictions in the United States have been disproved by DNA analysis and the recanting of testimony that it is outrageous that any criminal evidence should ever be placed outside public review.”

The irony in the newspapers’ opposition to the new law is that one reason there is little precedent for the debate over images from Sandy Hook is that newspapers and news broadcasters have in the past exercised extreme restraint in seeking and publishing graphic images from the scenes of mass shootings. The closest precedent for the Connecticut debate lies in the aftermath of the Columbine shootings: The Rocky Mountain News opted to run a photograph of the lifeless body of one of the teenaged victims lying, at some distance from the lens, outside the school. Later, after considerable controversy, authorities released a security-camera video clip of the shooters roaming inside the school library where much of the shooting occurred, as well as graphic pictures of the killers’ bodies where they fell after they shot themselves and all the 911 calls from the scene. But no images of victims inside the school surfaced, nor did any of those at Virginia Tech. Meg Moritz, a University of Colorado journalism professor who has studied the coverage of Columbine, noted that that massacre occurred in a different era than today’s, with no cell phone cameras and with less of an anything-goes wilderness on the Internet, which may help explain why the families and legislators in Connecticut were so much more wary on this point: “There’s a tension between the standard ethical practice of mainstream journalism and what’s happening online,” she said.

In any case, as a result of the new law, the language of description will have to suffice when the Sandy Hook parents meet with Boehner and Cantor on Wednesday. And who knows, that may be enough. As Sandy Phillips, the mother of one of the victims of last year’s Aurora, Colorado, shooting told me, Cantor could barely endure her account when she visited him recently: “I had Cantor in tears. When you start a conversation out and say: ‘You have a daughter. I had a daughter. Would you like to see her killed the way mine was killed?’ And then you go into a description. Cantor had his head down like he was saying, ‘I don’t want to hear this, I don’t want to hear this.’ And I said, ‘Imagine if it’s your daughter pinned down with nowhere to go, and she gets shot six times, and the sixth one takes her brain.’ ... I knew he didn’t want to be there, but he did listen.”

Alec MacGillis is a New Republic senior editor. You can follow him @AlecMacGillis