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Norwich case showed danger of secret deaths

Chris Powell

Publication: The Day

Published March 09. 2013 4:00AM

Not since Watergate, the national government corruption scandal, prompted Connecticut to pass its Freedom of Information Act in 1975 has the public's right to know been in such jeopardy here.

Strangely, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy is the biggest part of the threat, as he has been consolidating and weakening state government's three "watchdog" agencies - the freedom of information, elections, and ethics commissions - and is seeking to put them under the direct control of his office even though the integrity of their work requires some independence from the governor and all political officials. And responding to the Journal Inquirer's exposure of the chronic violation of the open-government law by the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Malloy administration has proposed exempting the board from the law entirely, as if the reasons for the release of criminals are nobody's business - even when parolees go on to murder people, as has happened twice lately.

But the most dangerous threat to freedom of information may come from state legislators in the Newtown area, where the urge to do something - anything - in response to the school massacre there is most powerful. Those legislators propose to allow concealment of the death certificates of all minors.

The idea is said to be to spare the feelings of the families of murdered children. But nothing special has been and nothing special is likely to be made of the death certificates in Newtown, since there is no mystery about the deaths.

There is often mystery about the deaths of other children - particularly at the hands of their parents, siblings, or guardians, or state institutions having custody of them - and the Newtown legislation quickly would be used to conceal all sorts of wrongdoing, individual, institutional, and governmental.

Indeed, there is a trend toward concealing such wrongdoing in Connecticut.

Years ago both the public and the government understood the necessity of accounting for untimely deaths, and Connecticut even had a special government office for such accountability - the office of county coroner. The coroners would publicly investigate untimely deaths, publish reports on their findings, and even mail the reports to newspapers, ensuring publicity and accountability. Occasionally the coroners would even expose official misconduct, like the murder of two unarmed burglars shot in the back by state police officers at a school in Norwich in 1969 and the perjury and fabrication of evidence by the police to conceal their crime.

But memories fade and amid prosperity even basic rights are taken for granted. So in the name of efficiency Connecticut abolished the coroners offices and transferred their work to the office of the chief state medical examiner, which ever since has striven to conceal as much information about untimely deaths as it could get away with in the name of protecting the privacy of the dead.

Of course the concealment of information about death and disappearance is the prerequisite of totalitarianism.

It's not safe to live in a jurisdiction where you can't find out why people are dying, even if occasionally someone may be embarrassed. Already, even though the courts are functioning normally everywhere, the federal government has suspended the right of habeas corpus upon the mere accusation of terrorism.

And now, as if they couldn't be more blind, those state legislators would conceal child death certificates even as the Hartford Courant has just published reports about dozens of deaths, many involving children, caused in recent years by negligence in state institutions or institutions supported by the state - deaths overlooked by the public and state government and thus deaths from which nothing was learned to hold the negligent to account and prevent other deaths.

When government restricts public access to its records and proceedings, it isn't protecting the public; it is protecting its negligence and corruption against the public.

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