January 22, 2013

Press Herald fights state on withheld 911 transcripts

The newspaper says there's an improper blanket policy of keeping the data secret, but state officials say it's their right.

By Eric Russell erussell@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The Portland Press Herald is challenging what it considers a blanket policy of the state Attorney General's Office of withholding transcripts from 911 calls connected with open criminal investigations.

Sigmund Schutz, the newspaper's attorney, filed a motion Tuesday in Cumberland County Superior Court asking a judge to overturn the state's denial of the newspaper's Freedom of Access Act request for all 911 transcripts associated with open homicide investigations.

William Stokes, head of the Attorney General's Office's criminal division, said Tuesday that the position of his office has been consistent and conforms with an exemption in state law that says information can be withheld if its release 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 Freedom of Access Act request this month seeking a transcript of the 911 call made on Dec. 29 by Derrick Thompson, 19, of Biddeford minutes before Thompson and his girlfriend, Alivia Welch, 18, were shot and killed, allegedly by their landlord, James Pak.

Thompson's mother, Susan Johnson, also was shot but survived.

Police had been at the apartment building three minutes before the shootings but determined there was no cause for action. They say they determined that the argument between Pak and Thompson that preceded the shootings was a civil, not criminal, matter.

But in an affidavit, 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 Office 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 homicide 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 ... the criminal division has exclusive jurisdiction over homicide prosecutions. As chief, it is my position that the requested material constitutes intelligence and investigative information and should not be publicly released," Stokes wrote in his response. "It is the position we have taken in every single homicide investigation. End of story."

The newspaper 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 the issue. 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.

Five states, including Maine, impose some restrictions. Six states keep 911 recordings confidential.

In August 2011, Maine did turn over written transcripts of 911 calls related to the murder of Sarah Gordon in Winslow after an 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 said 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.

Staff Writer Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:


Twitter: @PPHEricRussell


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