PORTLAND

The state’s highest court on Thursday ordered law enforcement officials to release transcripts of 911 calls from the fatal shootings of two teenagers in Biddeford, ruling that officials failed to prove how releasing the transcripts could harm their criminal investigation.

The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision ends what The Portland Press Herald described as a blanket policy by law enforcement of rejecting the release of 911 transcripts.

Under Maine law, 911 transcripts are to be made available under the Freedom of Access Act. But there can be exceptions for “intelligence and investigative records.” In this case, the high court ruled that law enforcement officials failed to show how releasing the transcripts could harm the investigation.

“This is an important win for the public’s right to know how Maine’s emergency communication system operates and paves the way for greater public access to information in ongoing criminal proceedings,” said Sigmund Shutz, an attorney who represented MaineToday Media Inc., the parent company of the Press Herald.

The decision focused three 911 calls made before and after a double-shooting in Biddeford.

James Pak, a landlord, is charged with killing Derrick Thompson, 19, and his girlfriend, Alivia Welch, 18, after he argued with them about late rent, snow shoveling and parking. Biddeford police officers had been called to intervene in the dispute but they left before it turned violent. Pak has pleaded not guilty.

“We conclude that the state failed to meet its burden of establishing the reasonable possibility that disclosure of the … transcripts would interfere with law enforcement proceedings,” Justice Ellen Gorman wrote in the unanimous ruling.

While the ruling won’t result in the release of all 911 transcripts, it provides guidance to law enforcement officials, ending blanket denials and requiring justification for withholding transcripts. In the Pak case, the court sent the case back to the original judge, with instructions for him to release the transcripts.

The attorney general’s office contended that releasing transcripts to the public can harm investigations, color witnesses’ memories and taint jury pools, not to mention being time consuming.

On Thursday, Attorney General Janet Mills said her office will comply with the supreme court ruling, but she said she wished the justices had addressed the potential effect on trials.

The state wants to ensure a fair trial and eliminate any possible grounds for appeal, she said.

“If we don’t protest the disclosure of something that could impair the right of a fair trial for the defendant, then we could be accused of not allowing a fair trial after a conviction,” she said.

MaineToday Media Inc. sued for release of the transcripts under the openrecords law. “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 Portland Press Herald.

Several organizations including The Associated Press, Committee for Freedom of the Press and New England First Amendment Center submitted a legal brief supporting the newspaper’s stance.



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