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Newspaper’s quest for juvenile records changes state access law

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From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 46.

From the Summer 2001 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 46.

The Tulsa World had tried with varying levels of success to obtain juvenile records in the past. But its recent quest for the juvenile records of Robert Wayne Rotramel represented not only a chance to test the law, but also an opportunity to report on the deficiencies of the juvenile rehabilitation system.

The World spent 10 months battling for Rotramel’s records — a fight that culminated in an order by the Oklahoma Supreme Court that Rotramel’s juvenile criminal records had to be released.

Rotramel, accused of raping and murdering two Oklahoma girls in August 2000, had a long juvenile criminal history spotted with several allegations of sexual offenses, including forcible sodomy and molestation of a relative. Reports also claimed he was involved in several disciplinary complaints including arson, vandalism and fights with other juveniles. Despite a history of mixed progress at juvenile rehabilitation centers, a recent history of high marks had convinced a judge to release him in July 1999.

The newspaper’s accomplishment in obtaining the records has been two-fold. First, the newspaper informed the public of Rotramel’s previous brushes with the law. Second, its legal challenge for access to the records encouraged the creation of state access laws designed to protect the community from repeat juvenile sexual offenders.

In August 2000, the World sought access to the juvenile records of then 19-year-old Rotramel after he was charged with raping and murdering 12-year-old Kristi Blevins and strangling her 7-year-old friend in Oilton, Okla. The newspaper and Tulsa’s CBS affiliate KOTV reported that sources close to Rotramel, including his father, said the young man had been incarcerated as a juvenile for sexual offenses.

Both news organizations asked the juvenile judge who released Rotramel to allow access to his juvenile records under a provision of state law allowing the release of juvenile records if an individual has been charged with certain violent crimes, including murder and rape, while between ages 13 and 17.

The World attempted to intervene in Rotramel’s criminal case in Creek County District Court, but the judge would not allow that move, holding that the newspaper could not intervene in an ongoing criminal trial. The World instead intervened in a civil case filed by KOTV in the same court, which also sought access to Rotramel’s juvenile records.

The judge in the civil case read the statute that allowed waiver of confidentiality literally and found that because Rotramel was not charged between age 13 and 17 with these crimes, his records could not be released under the statute. However, the judge found that there was a compelling need for public disclosure of some of Rotramel’s juvenile records. She allowed the release of a few records out of his law enforcement and court file, but only after some redactions of the information contained in the records.

The World then asked the Supreme Court of Oklahoma to find that both lower court judges erred to the extent that they refused to order disclosure. The newspaper argued that under Oklahoma law the charges of rape and murder opened the defendant’s records to the public. The paper also argued that “the First Amendment accords the public and the Tulsa World a qualified constitutional right of access to juvenile court [records] of an adult when . . . the adult is now charged with a serious criminal offense.”

To support its claim for intervention, the newspaper argued both judges erred by not allowing automatic access to the records. It also said there is a recognized right of public access to criminal trials under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

In the past, the newspaper experienced inconsistent results when it requested juvenile records of someone charged with a violent crime, said Schaad Titus, counsel for the World.

“The Rotramel case received substantial publicity because of the seriousness of his adult charges, his reported recent release from a juvenile facility and rumors of previous problems,” Titus said. “Because all of his juvenile records were confidential and no one was talking on the record about his previous history, this case seemed ripe to test the statute.”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court not only reversed the lower court’s decision in the civil case, it rebuked that court, saying the egregious facts of Rotramel’s case made the failure to release the records “an unauthorized use of judicial force.”

The high court found a legislative intent to keep juvenile records confidential in most cases to afford “juveniles the opportunity to enter adulthood free of the stigmatization that follows criminal offenders.” But the disclosure provision for violent offenders, the court wrote, indicated the legislature’s desire for accurate media coverage and an informed public, which was far more important than keeping the records confidential.

Successful on one front, the World lost on another.

The Supreme Court rejected the newspaper’s argument that the law should apply without judicial review. The court wrote that the legislature intended for juvenile judges to review petitions for access to juvenile records because “they are on the front lines and have the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the accused.” This decision now requires a requester “to file a petition, wait 30 days, give notice and hold a hearing over the release of run-of-the-mill juvenile records as well as significant juvenile adjudications,” according to Titus. He said the newspaper has asked for a rehearing on that issue.

Additionally, the Court did not explicitly address whether the newspaper had a right to intervene in the criminal trial. However, according to Titus, because the court determined that “judicial review is required by the decision in Miller, the press has standing under the statute to raise access rights.”

The public furor over the Rotramel case has led to legislation attempting to protect the community from juvenile sexual offenders. Rhonda Blevins, the mother of the 12-year-old victim, led the petition drive to pass a bill requiring juvenile sexual offenders to register with the state just as adult offenders do, according to The Dallas Morning News.

Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating signed the bill into law on June 1. However, the access to this information remains limited. The list is disseminated only to law enforcement agencies, which in turn can notify the community of sexual offenders living nearby. (World Publishing Co. v. White) — CC