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High court will not hear case opening Virginia police records

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    News Media Update         U.S. SUPREME COURT         Freedom of Information    

High court will not hear case opening Virginia police records

  • The U.S. Supreme Court last week refused to consider a case in which the Virginia State Police lost a series of court battles to seal files from the 1982 rape and murder investigation of Earl Washington Jr.

Nov. 15, 2004 — U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist denied an expedited request last week by Virginia State Police to seal its files from a murder investigation that wrongly sent Earl Washington Jr. to death row.

The entire U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond (4th Cir.) had previously rejected a request by Virginia Attorney General Jerry Kilgore to review an earlier three-judge panel decision to unseal documents from the 1982 capital murder and rape trial of Washington, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. Washington was exonerated after almost a decade on death row.

Ten of 14 documents from Washington’s investigation file were ordered unsealed earlier this month in a civil lawsuit filed on his behalf in 2002. The appellate court upheld U.S. District Court Judge Norman K. Moon’s determination that the Virginia Department of State Police “failed to present a compelling governmental interest” — or in the case of one document, any interest at all — sufficient to warrant keeping the papers sealed.

Kilgore argued that releasing the 14 documents could compromise the “active and ongoing” investigation into the 1982 rape and murder of Rebecca Williams in Culpeper, Va. The state claimed the documents should be kept sealed because they contained information concerning a “certain suspect or suspects,” as well as DNA evidence related to that suspect, Kenneth Maurice Tinsley. The district court, however, rejected the state’s argument because the Tinsley information was already a matter of public record, and his status as a suspect in the Williams case had been extensively reported in the media.

News organizations, including The Times-Dispatch , sought to have more than a dozen documents unsealed.

(Virginia Dept. of State Police v. The Washington Post, Media Counsel: John Kester, Williams & Connolly, Washington, D.C.) CB

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