On the fringe

San Joaquin County Superior Court Judge Linda Lofthus, in a hearing this afternoon regarding the unsealing of documents in the Sandra Cantu case, mainly grisly autopsy photos:

“Once published, it goes viral,” she said.

Lofthus had a very difficult, emotional decision to make today. One of the major undercurrents recently in the case, since Melissa Huckaby pleaded guilty in May to murdering 8-year-old Tracy girl Sandra Cantu, has been whether or not to unseal the Grand Jury transcripts and other documents. Most of the transcripts were unsealed, meaning members of the media (and technically, anyone) could request copies, though it’ll cost a hefty sum. Info about an underaged girl also allegedly drugged by Huckaby will be taken out to protect her privacy.

But when Lofthus got to the subject of photos, the courtroom got a little more tense. She said that while she trusted members of the mainstream media (i.e. the Tracy Press, the Stockton Record, AP, NBC, et alius) not to publish the autopsy photos of Sandra — who was drugged, choked and violated with a rolling pin — she didn’t think that bloggers and other people “on the fringe of mainstream media,” would have the same discretion.

One of the attorneys who fought for closure of the records said that the mainstream media had a financial stake in the records, noting that by running things like autopsy photos (which no reputable media outlet would do… the concept of “If It Bleeds, It Leads,” largely pertains to copy, not photographs), they could sell more newspapers, get more airtime, et cetera. He cited examples like the National Enquirer (which I’d hardly deem MSM, despite its attempt at a Pulitzer Prize).

I just thought it was interesting. Lofthus mentioned the case of Nikki Catsouras, an 18-year-old who was beheaded after she lost control of her car. Two California Highway Patrol employees forwarded crash scene pictures, which showed her body extensively damaged, to their personal e-mail addresses. These photos later made it to MySpace and other websites, which naturally traumatized the family. When you do a Google search for “Nikki Catsouras,” the first two links that come up are deplorable. I can’t imagine what the anguish would be like if something similar happened to Sandra.

Most of the Grand Jury transcripts were unsealed (though attorneys can appeal Lofthus’ decision before the release on Friday) and Lofthus said that the autopsy images are described in detail in the transcripts, which should be enough for the media. I just thought it was eyebrow-raising that the main cause of the sealing was unsavory online characters.

What if this case had happened 20 years ago, before the Internet became mainstream? Would everything be unsealed? How many cases have there been like this, where the habitual, voyeuristic tendencies of bloggers actually fuel a major motion?

Lofthus said she really balanced the public’s right to know with victim protection rights laid out in Marsy’s Law, which was passed in 2008 and protects the victim of violent crimes (and the victim’s family) from threats to privacy and further trauma. Attorneys for the family and others affected by the case (Stew Tabak, Archie Bakerink and another man whose name escapes me) felt, justifiably, that releasing the images would kind of be like making Sandra’s family, the Chavezes, relive the entire ordeal. An attorney also feared that the Chavezes would learn things about Sandra’s demise that they didn’t previously know. Tracy Police Det. Tim Bauer said that no new information would be released and that he and another officer reviewed all of the information they had with Sandra’s family.

Tabak even went as far as to compare the media to a spoiled child who doesn’t like hearing the word “no.” Which, to an extent, is true, but newspapers don’t make money off circulation. While I know that autopsy photos on the front page would lead to empty newsracks, the money earned from that wouldn’t exactly be enough for a company jet.

Despite what attorneys and anonymous commenters believe, newspapers make money (or at least, they used to) through advertising, not through dead-tree copies of the paper for 25 or 50 cents.

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