Herbst attacks Musto's position on release of Sandy Hook photos; Musto defends decision

Following the approval of a bill by Connecticut’s General Assembly to ban the release of Sandy Hook School shooting photos, 911 call recordings and videos from the crime scene, First Selectman Timothy Herbst, along with fellow Republican chief executives of Newtown and Monroe, criticized one of the bill’s few opponents, Trumbull’s Democratic state Sen. Anthony Musto.

Musto, who also represents Bridgeport and Monroe and lives in Trumbull, was one of two state senators who voted against the bill, saying the decision to ban the release of information could have far-reaching implications in the future. The bill passed the Senate by 33-2 and the House by 130-2.

The final bill addresses not just the school shooting in Newtown, but all homicides in the state. The bill as approved exempts photos, video, digital or other images depicting a homicide victim from being part of the public record “to the extent that such record could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of the personal privacy of the victim or the victim’s surviving family members.” The law also limits disclosure of audio recordings of 911 and law enforcement calls.

Before the bill was passed, families of the Newtown victims went to Hartford in support of the bill, some saying they were concerned the images and other information would be used by fringe Internet bloggers and gun control activists, causing the families more pain and stress. Herbst sent out a press release last week, after the bill passed, saying he stood behind the families.

“The people of Trumbull and Monroe have forged a strong bond with the people of Newtown,” Herbst said in the release. “Our communities were among the first to offer mutual aid. I cannot imagine the pain and anguish felt by the families of this tragedy. Trumbull lost a great resident and dedicated educator in Mary Sherlach.”

Herbst went on to say he strongly “condemned” Musto’s decision.

“Senator Musto’s actions are shameful, abhorrent and show a complete lack of respect for these families,” he said. “I challenge Senator Musto to look these families in the eye and tell them that it is acceptable to release the photos of the most deadly mass killing in the history of the State of Connecticut. The Psychology Department at Yale University would have a field day in studying and assessing how Senator Musto applies logic.”

Musto defended his decision soon after Herbst sent out the release.

“The murders in Newtown were heartbreaking,” Musto said. “As a father of schoolchildren and husband of a teacher, these events hit particularly close to home.  They started comprehensive discussions of mental health, school security and gun regulation in the legislature, all of which I supported.”

Musto said he, along with the public feel protective of the families in Newtown, but he said such an horrendous incident should give everyone pause before drafting a new law.

“When deciding whether to conceal government information, the presumption should always be in favor of full disclosure, no matter how horrific the incident,” Musto wrote. “Government shouldn’t keep evidence of a crime secret unless the government can provide a compelling reason for doing so, and should never, ever be in the business of deciding what information is too disturbing for its people.”

Herbst’s press release included criticism of Musto’s position from Monroe First Selectman Steve Vavrek and Newtown First Selectwoman Pat Llodra.

“The legislature’s overwhelming support was both thoughtful and sensitive in shielding victims’ photos,” First Selectwoman Llodra said.  “The families that lost loved ones at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012 have been through enough anguish and pain. No one needs to see photographs or hear emergency 911 calls of this massacre to understand how horrific and terrible a crime that was perpetrated upon the good people of Newtown. I cannot understand how any legislator, Republican or Democrat, could vote against this legislation and support the release of this material.”

Monroe First Selectman Steve Vavrek, whose community stepped forward in December of 2012 to offer a vacant school to serve as the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, said that while he was pleased the legislation passed overwhelmingly and on a bipartisan basis, he was more disappointed by the fact that Musto, who also represents Monroe, voted against the legislation.

“As the host community for the new Sandy Hook Elementary School, I have seen on a daily basis the great challenge for the educators, families and children of the Sandy Hook community to heal,” Vavrek said. “Senator Musto’s actions make the healing process all the more difficult by essentially saying that it is acceptable to place in the public domain visual imaging and graphic detail regarding a horrific slaughter. I think Senator Musto owes these families an apology.”

Musto said his concerns about the bill stemmed from the fact that the law will apply to the entire state and all future homicides.

“It blocks public access to information collected during government investigation of a crime and in the exclusive possession of government,” Musto said. “If we want to protect Newtown families we should make it a crime to misuse such images for malicious reasons or to harass the families. But we should not cut off all public access to information from the start.”

Herbst and fellow municipal leaders applauded the passing of the bill and said that the “state legislature struck a proper balance between the public’s right to know and protecting the privacy of the families from graphic depictions of 20 massacred children and six adults."

Musto said the families of Newtown have his sympathy and support.

“But for those of us in government to conceal information from our citizens because we think the information is disturbing sets a dangerous precedent,” Musto said.  “I opposed this legislation because I believe this is contrary to the way government should act toward citizens.”