Virginia Law Prevents Police From Naming Juvenile Homicide Victims

When 16-year-old Jholie Moussa disappeared from her northern Virginia home in January, Fairfax County police publicized her name and her picture, hoping for a tip that would help locate her. 

When Jholie's body was found a few days later, police found themselves banned from identifying her by name now that she was dead. They had to get permission from Jholie's grieving family to confirm to the public that her body had been found.

That's because Virginia has a new law prohibiting police from identifying juvenile homicide victims without the permission of the family. But Fairfax County Police Chief Edwin Roessler said the law unnecessarily subjects victims' families to pain and puts officers in positions they don't want to be in. 

"We're retraumatizing the victims,'' he said in a phone interview. 

Roessler also said the law undermines his efforts at making the department more accountable and transparent. 

"If the police department can't be the trusted source to provide this information erodes the public's trust in that law enforcement agency,'' Roessler said. 

Fairfax County police have found themselves hamstrung in numerous cases. When police investigated the Sept. 5 deaths of two children and a woman in Herndon, a police spokesman was barred from releasing to the press any names or information about whether the victims were related. 

A short time later, police issued a statement saying a 42-year-old woman killed two children and then took her own life, but again no names were released, and reporters could confirm the family connection only through relatives and neighbors. 

Under the law, police cannot even tell school officials of the death of a student who dies as a result of a crime, Roessler said. That can hinder efforts by schools to provide counseling or take other steps to help classmates deal with the death. Roessler said the inability to disclose names also impedes police from receiving tips from the public. 

Supporters of the law, of course, see it differently. Sen. Scott Surovell, a Fairfax County Democrat, pushed for the legislation. In 2016, 2-year-old Kyra Franchetti was killed by her father, Roy Eugene Rumsey, in a murder-suicide. Surovell, a lawyer, represented Kyra's mother, Jacqueline Franchetti, who wanted to postpone the release of her daughter's name. 

Surovell approached Fairfax County police and said existing law already allowed them to withhold the name under a provision pertaining to family abuse. Police disagreed and released Kyra's name.

"My client was still in the grieving process and wanted to complete that before dealing with a bunch of press calls,'' he said. 

Surovell did say he would support a revision to the new law so that names could be released in nondomestic situations, like those of Jholie Moussa, who police say was killed by an ex-boyfriend. In cases where kids are killed by family members, Surovell said the family has a right to privacy. 

Megan Rhyne of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government said several bills in Richmond in recent years have tried to prevent disclosure of names, including legislation that would bar the release of police officers' names involved in shootings for six months. Most of the legislation was rejected, but Rhyne said the new law simply flew under the radar. 

"I'm embarrassed we didn't catch it,'' she said. "But no one caught it."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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