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Bill Would Curb Access to Photos of Murder Victims

UPDATED: The legislation authored by Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, that would require court approval for most requests to view or copy crime scene photos that show murder victims passed the Senate Monday without debate.

Victim Advocate for the City of Houston Andy Kahan, with crime scene photos printed off websites showing dead bodies, many unclothed, in his office at the Houston Police Department in Houston, Monday May 6, 2013.

Updated: After weeks of intense negotiations, the Senate easily gave final approval on Monday to a bill that would limit who can view and copy graphic crime scene photos. Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, introduced one amendment to his bill that outlined a list of those exempt from its provisions, including news and research organizations. Senate Bill 1512 now moves to the House for consideration.

Original story: To illustrate articles about Preston Hughes III, who was convicted and sentenced to death in the 1988 stabbing deaths of a 15-year-old Houston girl and her 3-year-old cousin, several bloggers published graphic crime scene photographs last November, around the time of Hughes’ execution.

Andy Kahan, the head of Houston’s Crime Victims Assistance Office, said it was the publication of those images, which showed the bodies of the victims, that drove him to seek a change in Texas law to limit access to crime scene photos.

“Once they’re plastered on an internet website, there is no such thing as ‘delete,’” Kahan said. Their publication, he said, adds to the suffering of victims’ families.

Under Texas law, anyone can file an open records request for copies of crime scene photos after prosecution has ended. Kahan approached state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and asked for legislation that would restrict the release of such photos.

Ellis wrote Senate Bill 1512, which would require court approval for most requests to view or copy crime scene photos that depict a victim “in a state of dismemberment, decapitation, or similar mutilation or that depicts the deceased person’s genitalia.”

Opponents say the bill is unnecessary, arguing that obtaining such photos is already difficult.

At a legislative hearing on the bill last month, Gilda Muskwinsky, whose 17-year-old daughter was murdered in 1984, said the measure would provide peace of mind for victims’ families. “It’s really sad that we have to come to the Legislature and ask that it be legislated for common decency,” she said.

Stacy Allen, legal counsel for the Texas Association of Broadcasters, testified against the measure. “This bill is a solution in search of a problem that does not exist,” he said.

Requests to release crime scene photos are granted fewer than 20 times a year, according to the Texas attorney general’s office.

“There is no reason to believe that credentialed, legitimate news organizations in the state of Texas would ever publish such gruesome photos,” Allen said. “There is no history of that practice on behalf of those organizations in Texas.”

Ellis’ staff has revised the bill, making news organizations and researchers exempt from the restrictions.

“We don’t want to limit transparency where people need to get to that information,” said Brandon Dudley, Ellis’ chief of staff. “We have enough wrongful convictions around here.”

The Motion Picture Association of America asked for more inclusive language, to maintain documentary filmmakers’ access to crime scene photos. As such, in the latest revision of the bill, Ellis replaced the phrase “news media” with the more encompassing “expressive works” to include any form of entertainment with news value.

After reworking the bill, members of Ellis’ staff said they believed they had struck a compromise between the interests of victims and those of news organizations to help prevent the mishandling of crime scene photos in the future. 

“This is an opportunity to get ahead of the game for once,” Kahan said. 

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Courts Criminal justice State government Rodney Ellis Texas Legislature