Newspaper gains access to police misconduct reports
MASSACHUSETTS–The Boston Globe may see files underlying a report that exonerated Boston police from federal allegations of misconduct in investigating the Carol Stuart murder case, the state’s Supreme Court ruled in early April.
Rejecting police arguments, the court noted that previous disclosures left few secrets that would intrude on privacy or harm investigations, and said that the public has a strong interest in how the investigations were conducted.
The 1989 slaying of Carol DiMiati Stuart and her unborn child, and the shooting of her husband Charles Stuart, attracted widespread local and national attention, as police sought the assailant Charles Stuart described as a black man wearing a black and red jogging suit.
In 1990 Charles Stuart’s brother implicated him as the assailant and he committed suicide. But by that time, Boston police had collected abundant testimony pointing to a black suspect whom Stuart identified. Police later determined that Stuart committed the murder.
The U.S. Department of Justice investigated claims that police coerced that testimony. In a report in 1991 it alleged that police lied to obtain a search warrant, planted contraband in order to arrest a witness, coerced witness accounts through physical threats and committed other offenses in its zeal to name the murderer.
That report triggered a responsive study by the Boston police Internal Affairs Division, but the IAD in 1992 discounted all the federal claims and found only “inappropriate use of language” by an officer.
Discrepancies between the reports prompted Boston Globe reporter Sean Murphy to request the files used in the police report, but the police denied them, claiming exemptions to the state Public Records Law for investigatory records and for personal privacy.
The Globe sued and in September 1993, a Suffolk County Superior Court judge in Boston ordered most of the records released. The police appealed.
The state’s high court ruled there is a presumption that records are public, and found that the reports and the other publicity surrounding the Stuart murder had brought before the public so much information that release of further records would cause little privacy intrusion and would not harm investigatory interests.
Strong public interest in knowing whether public servants conducted a thorough, honest investigation outweighs privacy interests, the court said. It also ruled that the effect of disclosure on law enforcement is a case-by-case consideration, and that in this case, disclosure would cause no harm. (Globe Newspaper Co. v. Police Commissioner of Boston; Media Counsel: Jonathan Albano, Boston)