Sunday, July 24, 2011

Judge closes evidentiary hearing in Todd murder case; newspaper seeking child-welfare records

Todd Circuit Judge Tyler Gill has sealed the case record and barred journalists from a continuing hearing in the murder case of a 9-year-old girl, "fearing the disclosure of evidence that jurors won’t be allowed to hear at trial," Nick Tabor reports from Elkton for the Kentucky New Era in Hopkinsville.

Tabor reports that state police say Amy Dye's 17-year-old cousin and adoptive brother, Garrett Dye, who is being tried as an adult, confessed to killing her, but his attorney says the confession was coerced and has asked the judge to suppress it. The hearing lasted all day Friday and is to continue Monday. Gill told the five reporters who wanted to cover the hearing, “I can’t do anything to intentionally sabotage the defendant’s right to a fair trial.”

Gill also sealed the court record until after the trial, which is scheduled for November. The defense "requested a mental evaluation to determine whether Dye was eligible to plead insanity and competent to stand trial," Tabor reported. "The evaluation results are confidential, and so far attorneys have not scheduled a hearing for Gill to rule on Dye’s competency." (Read more)

The case has raised other open-government issues. The weekly Todd County Standard asked the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services for its file on the case and won an appeal at the attorney general's office when the cabinet said it had no such records and refused the request of the office for a confidential review of records.

The cabinet appealed Franklin Circuit Court's award of costs and attorneys' fees but not the substance of the ruling, which cited an earlier opinion of the court that the cabinet must release records of a case where child abuse or neglect resulted in a fatality or near fatality. "The cabinet had substantiated allegations of abuse or neglect involving Amy and had imposed certain conditions upon the family," the Standard said in its lawsuit to force the cabinet to release the records.

The Standard asked Todd County Dispatch for access to logs and recordings of calls it received on the night the killing was reported, but the agency denied the request, saying disclosure could compromise the investigation. The attorney general's office upheld the denial, saying in an opinion written by Assistant Attorney General Ryan Halloran that the agency had demonstrated that "disclosure of the information would harm it by revealing the identity of informants not otherwise known or by premature release of information to be used in a prospective law enforcement action."

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Louisville school-bus fight tape is open record

Attorney General Jack Conway has ruled that a videotape of an assault on a Jefferson County Public Schools bus driver by a parent is a public record and should be released to Louisville television station WLKY.

An opinion issued July 11, written by Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver, held that the school system violated the state's Open Records Act by refusing to make the tape available. The district declined the station's request, declaring the tape was protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The videotape, the school district argued, is an educational record and is therefore confidential under the federal law.

But the opinion held that the videotape focused on the action of the adults involved rather than the students. The school system should blur the identities of any students visible in the tape and release it to the television station, said the opinion, which has the force of law unless overturned by a court. The school system has 30 days to appeal. Lauren Roberts, a spokeswoman for the school system, said no decision has been reached on an appeal. UPDATE, Aug. 9: The system released the tape, in which the identities of the students were obscured, and the station did a story and posted the opinion.

The opinion said, "Because the conduct at issue in the disputed videotape does not focus on students, or student activities, we do not believe the videotape can be withheld in its entirety as an 'education record.' Instead, we find that it is a public record in which there is a strongly substantiated public interest predicated on the public’s ‘right to know’ . . . whether public servants are indeed serving the public . . . .” The opinion held that the privacy interest of the students "does not override the public’s right to know that its agencies and their employees are 'properly execut[ing] their statutory functions,' in this case, insuring the safety and protection of the students who have been entrusted with their care."

But the attorney general's office also stipulated that the opinion applies only to this particular situation and is not a precedent that applies to all school videotapes.

According to the website of WLKY-TV, on March 1, Chesica White boarded a bus ridden by her 7-year-old son intent on finding out who was bullying him. White and her 12-year-old daughter argued with bus driver Johnetta Anderson. The argument escalated and White dragged the driver off of the bus. Anderson suffered a torn ligament. White was charged with 20 felonies and two misdemeanors. She entered an Alford plea, meaning she didn't admit guilt but acknowledged a jury likely would find her guilty of two assault charges.

The station filed an open-records request seeking reports of bullying on the bus on which the March 1 altercation occurred. The documents the station received outlined 150 such reports since the start of the school year. Of that number, 51 were filed in the two weeks leading up to the March 1 incident. For the station's story, click here.

Monday, July 11, 2011

AG again finds KSP violated Open Records Act

Attorney General Jack Conway, the state's chief law-enforcement officer, has again found the Kentucky State Police, the state's main law-enforcement agency, in violation of the state's open-records law – this time in a case involving the 1977 Beverly Hills Supper Club fire that killed 165 people, one of the deadliest fires in American history.

The case began when David Brock, who is seeking evidence in the supper club fire, asked the state police for all photos and slides related to the fire. The state police gave him some black and white photos but refused to pursue access to color photos that had been taken home, with permission, by former trooper Ronnie Freels.

Conway's opinion, written by Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver, rejected the state police's contention that Freel's pictures were not in their control. Since they were removed with permission, they remained official state records and the state police must recover them and furnish copies to Brock, the opinion said, adding, "While KSP is not obligated to 'verify Mr. Brock’s assertion' that Mr. Freels maintains additional responsive photographs and slides relating to the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, it must secure those records from Mr. Freels so that Mr. Brock is afforded the opportunity to do so himself."

The opinion called the police's action a "serious open records management issue that involved subverting the intent of the open records law, as well as the laws governing records management and retention." The opinion noted that the attorney general's office had referred the matter to the Kentucky Department for Libraries and Archives "for further inquiry." For a copy of the opinion, click here.

The attorney general's office earlier found the state police had repeatedly violated the records law in a homicide case, and a survey last year by the Kentucky Open Goverment Blog showed many news organizations in the state labeled the Kentucky State Police as "stingy" with public information.