Hustler requests crime-scene photos

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ran an interesting article on March 8.

It said Hustler Magazine, the pornographic magazine ran by Larry Flynt, requested “crime-scene photos of the decapitated body of hiker Meredith Emerson,” and that request was met with more than displeasure.

The photos requested were nude shots of the 24-year-old woman, and a freelance writer named Fred Rosen made the request last month for a news story about the crime. Rosen is, according to AJC, “a true crime author currently on assignment to the magazine. He requested crime-scene photos as well as other documents, including a transcript of Hilton’s confession.”

In the AJC piece, “Rosen said he wanted to use the photos as a reference to better understand what happened.’I’m trying to get to the best obtainable version of the truth,’ he said . . . As for whether the photos would ever be published, Rosen said, ‘It’s up to the editor to make that decision.'”

(Emerson was a University of Georgia graduate who was murdered “on Jan. 1, 2008 . . . (She) went for a hike on Blood Mountain, near Neel’s Gap, in Northeast Georgia . . . Just before arriving back at her car, she was abducted by a piece of human excrement named Gary Michael Hilton who, by his own later admission, kept her prisoner for three days, raped her repeatedly and then murdered and decapitated her,” according to a post by Darrell Huckaby on gwinnettdailypost.com.)

AJC reported “House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) called the pornographic magazine’s request ‘sickening and disgusting and vile.'”

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation denied the request, even though such records aren’t exempt under the Georgia Open Records Act, because the agency felt “the intent of the Georgia Open Records Act prohibits the release.”

Lawmakers want to make sure such photos are exempt in the future, though.

“State Rep. Jill Chambers (R-Atlanta) said she will introduce legislation to make sure crime-scene photos like Emerson’s never can be obtained through Georgia’s public-disclosure laws. Her bill would exempt requests for photos that, among other things, depict nude bodies,” the AJC article said.

“Meredith has no way to give permission to have her body exposed and lusted after by people who derive pleasure from this,” Chambers said in the article.

“Ralston said he would name the bill the ‘Meredith Emerson Privacy Act,'” according to the report.

Such requests are undoubtedly distasteful, but should they be exempt from the Open Records Act?

In the article, Atlanta attorney Bob Rothman, who practices First Amendment law, said “any exemption to the state Open Records Acts should be limited and not unduly restrictive to public access. ‘It’s important not to let any one request, no matter how repugnant, jeopardize the public’s right of access to public records,’ he said.”

Others side with Rothman.

“Charles Davis, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Center at the University of Missouri, agreed . . . ‘Having access to ghoulish crime-scene photos that most anyone would not even for a second — not even for a second — want to see might be very, very important for certain requesters because there might be public interest in the photographs,’ Davis said. This could include someone who is investigating a suspicious death that a coroner has ruled was caused by natural causes . . . ‘There could be reason to believe it was a murder and those photos could be important,’ Davis said.”

I have to agree. I think the request is disgusting, but banning such requests would have a chilling effect on open records and could snowball to prevent other important, though less unsavory, records from being released.

Open records are supposed to be open so anyone can access them and know what is going on with government agencies. It is unfortunate that such photos fall into that category, but if a distinction is made then government officials wishing to hide certain information will have a loophole in which to conceal data. This would be a detriment to society and make government less accountable.

Was Hustler wrong to request those photos? Yes. But is it wrong to ban such requests? Yes. Open information is vital to our democracy.

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Georgia Politics 6:22 p.m. Monday, March 8, 2010

Hustler magazine photo request sparks uproar

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Hustler Magazine’s request for crime-scene photos of the decapitated body of hiker Meredith Emerson was met by outraged lawmakers who vowed on Monday to push legislation exempting such photos from public release.

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House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge) called the pornographic magazine’s request “sickening and disgusting and vile.” He talked Sunday with Emerson’s mother and said she was “extremely distraught over the possibility that this could even happen.” The speaker urged the GBI not to release the photos of Emerson’s nude and dismembered body.

John Bankhead, a GBI spokesman, said the agency declined the request and said the intent of the Georgia Open Records Act prohibits the release.

“This is just an affront to the victim’s family,” Bankhead said. “It’s incredible that anybody would ask for something like this.”

In a statement, Hustler said the photos would be used in a news story about the crime. Hustler and its publisher, Larry Flynt, disagreed with the GBI’s position “and are exploring all legal options available to them should the decision be made to go forward with this story.”

The controversy raises anew questions over the public’s right to know against the right to privacy of an individual, in this case a victim’s family.

State Rep. Jill Chambers (R-Atlanta) said she will introduce legislation to make sure crime-scene photos like Emerson’s never can be obtained through Georgia’s public-disclosure laws. Her bill would exempt requests for photos that, among other things, depict nude bodies.

“Meredith has no way to give permission to have her body exposed and lusted after by people who derive pleasure from this,” Chambers said.

Ralston said he would name the bill the “Meredith Emerson Privacy Act.”

Emerson, a 24-year-old University of Georgia graduate from Buford, was abducted Jan. 1, 2008, while hiking with her dog Ella on Blood Mountain trail in North Georgia. Florida-born vagrant and Army veteran Gary Michael Hilton beat Emerson to death and cut off her head. Prosecutors agreed not to seek the death penalty against him if he took investigators to Emerson’s remains. Hilton, now serving life in prison, is awaiting trial for decapitating a Florida woman.

The publication of crime-scene and autopsy photos has prompted widespread controversy.

In Florida, judges have refused to release Dale Earnhardt’s autopsy photos, agreeing with the race car driver’s widow that making the pictures public would cause the family pain. Georgia’s Open Records Act prohibits the release of autopsy photos unless consent is obtained from a victim’s family or a court order finding that the public benefit of the photos’ disclosure outweighs the family’s privacy interests.

A California appeals court recently criticized the state highway patrol’s release of grisly photos of Nikki Catsouras, 18, who died in an Oct. 31, 2006, crash while driving her father’s Porsche. Photos of the teenager’s decapitated corpse were published on more than 2,500 Internet Web sites. In a Jan. 29 decision, the California court said the release of such photos “would cause devastating trauma” to the Catsouras family.

Atlanta attorney Bob Rothman, who practices First Amendment law

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My name is Todd Vogts. I like the color green, riding my motorcycle, and being with my family and friends. A good book is a perfect companion for me any time, and I’m an author and journalist. Visit my website at www.toddvogts.com and follow me on Twitter at www.twitter.com/toddvogts.