Wednesday, March 12, 2014
MaineToday Media is challenging what it considers a blanket policy by the state Attorney General's Office of withholding transcripts of 911 calls connected to open criminal investigations.
Staff file photo by Andy Molloy
MaineToday Media includes the Kennebec Journal, Morning Sentinel, Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram and Coastal Journal newspapers.
Sigmund Schutz, the newspapers' attorney, filed a motion Tuesday in Cumberland County Superior Court asking a judge to appeal the state's denial of a Freedom of Access Act request for all 911 transcripts associated with open homicide investigations.
William Stokes, head of the criminal division at the Office of the Attorney General, said Tuesday that the position of his office has been consistent and conforms to an exemption in state public records law, which says information can be withheld if releasing that information would jeopardize an investigation.
Schutz said that's not what the law says.
"There is a specific language in state law that says 911 transcripts are public records," Schutz said. "If they can't release those records, they need to say what information contained within would compromise the investigation. Then, that information can be redacted. The (state's) position is to not release any information and say, 'Trust us.'"
Press Herald reporter David Hench filed a FOAA request earlier this month, seeking a transcript of the 911 call made by Derrick Thompson, 19, just minutes before Thompson and his girlfriend, Alivia Welch, 18, were reportedly shot and killed by their landlord, James Pak. Thompson's mother, Susan Johnson, also was shot but survived.
Police had responded to the apartment building only three minutes before the shooting but determined there was no cause for action. Although police determined that the argument between Pak and Thompson that preceded the murder was a civil, not criminal, matter, a police affidavit suggests otherwise. Police indicated that Thompson claimed Pak said he would shoot them and made a hand motion. Thompson, however, told police he didn't think Pak would hurt them.
Maine State Police and the attorney general's criminal division denied the newspaper's initial request, on the basis that releasing the information would interfere with an ongoing investigation. The Press Herald responded by requesting all 911 transcripts associated with all active murder cases.
"Law enforcement should not be judge and jury on the public's right to know," said Cliff Schechtman, the Press Herald's executive editor. "It's easy to cite 'investigative information' as a blanket cover to keep everything secret. But then, how can the public know that first responders are doing their job well?"
That broader request also was denied.
"The long and the short of this is that we, the criminal division, has exclusive jurisdiction over homicide prosecutions. As chief, it is my position that the request material constitutes intelligence and investigative information and should not be publicly released," Stokes wrote in his response. "That is our answer. It is the position we have taken in every single homicide investigation. End of story."
MaineToday Media is now appealing that denial.
In Tuesday's filing, Schutz accuses the attorney general's office of "imposing blanket confidentiality on all transcripts of 911 calls related to homicide investigations and refusing to prepare 911 transcripts of calls where, at the present time, only a recording exists."
Maine is in the minority on this issue. Six states keep 911 recordings confidential, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Five states, including Maine, place some restrictions on the release of 911 calls or the information contained in them. The other 39 states have no restrictions.
In August 2011, Maine did turn over written transcripts of 911 calls related to the murder of Sarah Gordon, in Winslow, after a FOAA request was made by the Morning Sentinel. Certain information was blacked out in that transcript, but the rest was provided to reporter Scott Monroe, who is now city editor of the Kennebec Journal.
When asked why information was released in that case, Stokes explained that Gordon was killed by her husband, who then killed himself. There was no prosecution. The case was closed.
"Transcripts can be made available after a case is resolved, but we don't feel the public has a right to those records before they are revealed in court," Stokes said.