The Georgia Supreme Court is in the midst of a case that should be frustratingly familiar to most police and crime reporters, regardless of the state law involved.
The Athens Banner-Herald sued Athens-Clarke County after the county’s police department refused to release documents connected to the unsolved 1992 rape and murder case of Jennifer Stone, who was found dead in her apartment. Georgia state open records law allows police departments to withhold documents related to "pending investigations," and the department in Athens-Clarke County has apparently made it a policy to withhold documents from all unsolved cases, regardless of how long they’ve gone cold.
In the Jennifer Stone case, 15 years have passed without so much as an arrest, and the Banner-Herald believes the public has a right to know, among other things, if the department’s been doing its job in diligently investigating the case. Not surprisingly, the county has argued that any document disclosure prior to the prosecution of a suspect could be "destructive" to the investigation.
"Why should the mere passage of time – or the luck of a criminal or the skill of a criminal – weaken the state’s ability to prosecute this case?" asked Bill Berryman, the county’s attorney.
Mr.Berryman’s question, rhetorical as it was likely meant to be, is a perfect example of the flawed logic behind government secrecy: "If only you knew what we know, you’d know what we know about how important it is to keep this information under wraps."
That old Catch-22. How convenient. Here’s another rhetorical question: Do Mr. Berryman and the Athens-Clarke County officials he represents honestly believe that the public never has a right to analyze and potentially critique the performance of its police department in what is arguably one of their most important functions: solving murders? Because as the department is currently interpreting state open records law, the public never has a right to know why a cold case killer was never brought to justice.
While police departments and military leaders in particular often seem to resent and despise having their judgment and decisions questioned, such public officials must ultimately be as accountable to taxpayers as any other public official. Police departments involved in sensitive investigations quite rightly require and should be allocated a reasonable amount of time to solve crimes. They just shouldn’t get an eternity to do so.