Court seals records which may reveal murder defendant’s past
LOUISIANA–In mid-July, a Louisiana district court in Baton Rouge issued an order prohibiting the coroner of East Baton Rouge Parish from releasing records about an allegedly mentally ill man charged with killing his brother. The order will expire at the end of the criminal proceedings.
The (Baton Rouge) Advocate filed a motion in the district court to vacate the protective order on the grounds that it is an impermissible prior restraint under the First Amendment and the Louisiana constitution. The delay in access to the information would undermine the “newsworthiness” of the story, the newspaper argued, which is an improper limitation on free speech rights under the state and federal constitutions.
The newspaper also argued that the court should not have issued the order without giving it an opportunity to oppose the motion.
In the motion for the protective order, the defendant argued that disclosure of the records would prejudice his right to a fair trial.
In early July, the newspaper had made attempts under the state’s public records law to get documents from parish coroner Hypolite Landry. These records would reveal whether complaints had ever been lodged against the man accused of murder, and whether the coroner had acted on the complaints, the paper argued. The coroner’s office has the authority under Louisiana law to determine whether dangerous individuals should be hospitalized for their own or the community’s protection.
The coroner refused the newspaper’s requests and argued that such medical records were exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act.
The newspaper then asked the coroner to state the legal basis for this policy. Rather than providing a written explanation, the coroner said that a protective order prohibited him from releasing the information.
Although the motion requesting the protective order was filed on behalf of the accused murderer, The Advocate told the court it believed that the order actually was obtained to protect the coroner’s interests. Information contained in the motion for the protective order, the newspaper argued, only could have come from the coroner’s office. The paper argued that the official’s purpose was “to prevent indirectly what the Coroner cannot prevent directly.”
The court has not yet ruled on the newspaper’s motion to withdraw the order. (In re Louisiana v. Tapia; Media counsel: Edwin W. Fleshman, Baton Rouge)