PORTLAND – The Portland Press Herald has appealed a judge’s decision to withhold transcripts from 911 calls related to a fatal shooting in Biddeford late last year.
The newspaper filed notice with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court on Thursday, appealing last week’s decision by Superior Court Justice Roland Cole to deny the release of the transcripts of three 911 calls in the case against James Pak, 75, who is accused of killing two people on Dec. 29 and wounding a third.
Cole ruled on March 8 that there is a “reasonable possibility” that public disclosure of those calls would interfere with the case against Pak and could “hypothetically influence the input of potential witnesses.”
The appeal challenges Cole’s decision on two points: whether 911 call transcripts, which are otherwise public record, can be made confidential when placed in a law enforcement file, and whether Cole had sufficient evidence to determine that there is a “reasonable possibility” that releasing the transcripts would interfere with the case.
Biddeford police received three 911 calls from 17 Sokokis Road on Dec. 29. One came before the shooting deaths of Derrick Thompson, 19, and his girlfriend, Alivia Welch, 18, and two came afterward.
The newspaper’s attorney, Sigmund Schutz, said the appeal is important because the issue of law enforcement making public records confidential “transcends” this single case.
“Can the Attorney General’s Office apply blanket non-disclosure for all investigatory records? Can law enforcement take any public record and turn it into a confidential record if it’s deemed important to law enforcement?” Schutz asked. “Our view is, it gives the state too much power to withhold public records at will.”
In this case, Thompson called 911 within an hour before he was fatally shot. Pak allegedly shot the three people within minutes after police left the home.
Schutz said it’s impossible for the public to know what Thompson said in that call to police without its release.
“It could apply to any public records. If anyone at the state decides it’s important to an investigation, they could make it confidential indefinitely,” Schutz said. “We think a stronger showing of harm has to be shown before a record is deemed confidential.”
Thirty-nine states have no restrictions on the release of 911 calls or the information in them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Pak has pleaded not guilty to five charges, including two counts of murder. Police say he shot and killed Thompson and Welch after a dispute over parking.
Pak also is charged with shooting Thompson’s mother, Susan Johnson, 44, who survived. She and her son rented an apartment connected to Pak’s home, and Welch often stayed there.
Thompson made a 911 call at 6:07 p.m. on Dec. 29. Police responded and determined that the dispute was a civil matter after talking with Johnson and Thompson, then with Pak.
In an affidavit, police indicated that Thompson claimed Pak said he would shoot them and made a hand motion.
Thompson, however, told police that he didn’t think Pak would hurt them.
The officers left the home about 6:51 p.m. Within three minutes, Johnson called 911, saying she had been shot twice.
Pak’s wife, Armit Pak, called 911 about 10 minutes after the shooting.
William Stokes, head of the Attorney General’s Office’s criminal division, said this week that he would not characterize the state’s opposition to release of 911 transcripts as a “blanket policy,” because it applies only to homicide cases.
The Press Herald’s executive editor, Cliff Schechtman, said he pushed for the appeal because “law enforcement should not be judge and jury on the public’s right to know.”
Scott Dolan can be contacted at 791-6304 or at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction: This story was revised at 2:30 p.m., March 15, 2013, to state that Superior Court Justice Roland Cole ruled on March 8 that there is a “reasonable possibility” that public disclosure of the 91 calls would interfere with the case against Pak.