November 15, 2013

Court: Press Herald has right to 911 transcripts

Justices order authorities to release the records in a Biddeford murder case, rejecting the state’s long-standing policy to withhold them.

By Scott Dolan
Staff Writer

And Eric Russell

The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has ordered the state to release transcripts of 911 calls in a murder case to the Portland Press Herald, ruling that such documents are public records.

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Derrick Thompson and Alivia Welch

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James Pak is shown at a court appearance in York County Superior Court in Alfred. The state’s highest court ordered the release of 911 transcripts related to the fatal shootings of Derrick Thompson, 19, and Alivia Welch, 18, whom Pak is accused of killing.

2012 Press Herald File / Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The unanimous decision, issued Thursday, rejected the state’s longstanding practice of withholding 911 transcripts in homicide cases. It overturned a ruling by a Superior Court judge in March that releasing the transcripts of three 911 calls in the case against James Pak, who is accused of killing two people and wounding a third, could interfere with the legal case.

The first 911 call was made by 19-year-old Derrick Thompson at 6:07 p.m. on Dec. 29, about 45 minutes before he and his girlfriend, Alivia Welch, 18, were shot dead in Thompson’s apartment in Biddeford. He told the dispatcher during that call that Pak, his landlord, was threatening him and banging on the door.

The second 911 call came three minutes after police officers left the apartment. Thompson’s mother, Susan Johnson, 45, called at 6:51 p.m., saying that Pak, 75, had shot her in the back, then killed her son and Welch, according to police.

The Press Herald sought transcripts of those two 911 calls and a third call, made by Pak’s wife, to find out exactly what Thompson told the dispatcher and why police considered the situation a “civil issue” and left just minutes before it turned deadly.

In a ruling March 8, Superior Court Justice Roland Cole found a “reasonable possibility” that public disclosure of those calls could interfere with the case and “hypothetically influence the input of potential witnesses.”

Before Thursday’s 7-0 ruling by the Supreme Judicial Court, the transcripts were subject to what the newspaper considered a blanket withholding by state law enforcement officials.

The appeal by MaineToday Media, Inc., parent company of the Press Herald, challenged Cole’s ruling 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 find a “reasonable possibility” that releasing the transcripts would interfere with the case.

“We conclude that the state failed to meet its burden of establishing the reasonable possibility that disclosure of the Pak E-9-1-1 transcripts would interfere with law enforcement proceedings,” said the ruling, written by Justice Ellen Gorman.

The ruling directs the case to be returned to Superior Court with an order that will require state authorities to release the transcripts from the Pak case.

The ruling makes no mention of how requests for 911 transcripts in future cases will be handled, but it sets a legal precedent for the release of transcripts that the state had deemed confidential.

“The court has made it clear that government secrecy cannot win out over the public’s right to know,” said Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the Press Herald. “This ruling will allow the public to better evaluate how well first responders protect and serve their communities.”

Pak has pleaded not guilty. The case against him remains pending in York County Superior Court.

Deputy Attorney General William Stokes, who represented the state in the lawsuit, said he was disappointed and “a little surprised” by the court’s decision. He said he believed that the state’s argument for withholding 911 calls and transcripts was strong.

“An investigation doesn’t end when someone is charged,” he said. “We’re always concerned when that type of information is in the public domain. But we’ll comply with the decision.”

Asked when he will release the 911 transcripts in the Pak case, Stokes said his staff will have to redact any information that can be withheld by law. He said the staff will contact family members of the victims so they are not “blindsided” by new information in the newspaper.

(Continued on page 2)

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