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Old criminal cases stay 'pending' until officially closed

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Sixteen years after the rape and murder of a University of Georgia student, with no suspects and no fresh leads in the case, the police files can…

Sixteen years after the rape and murder of a University of Georgia student, with no suspects and no fresh leads in the case, the police files can still be considered part of a pending investigation and so withheld from the public, the state Supreme Court has ruled.

The 4-3 split decision rebuffed the Athens Banner-Herald‘s quest for police records in the unsolved slaying of Jennifer Stone, who was strangled in her Athens apartment in April 1992. The paper filed its original public records request in 2005.

Citing prior decisions, the court found that "a seemingly inactive investigation which has not yet resulted in a prosecution logically ‘remains undecided,’ and is therefore ‘pending,’ until it is concluded and the file closed."

Furthermore, the 14-page opinion says, it would be wrong for the court to set "arbitrary time limits" for a pending investigation, even one "without tangible progress," when legislators declined to do so themselves.

In dissent, Justice Carol Hunstein wrote that the majority’s holding was inconsistent with an earlier case that required prosecutors to show "proof of definite and imminent action" for a case to be deemed pending. According to the majority in the Stone case, she said, "no amount of proof of inactivity can ever suffice when it comes to investigations: only official closure of the file" can allow for public access.

In reality, Hunstein added, police have "ceased all meaningful efforts" to find Stone’s killer.

The ruling reverses a lower appellate court order that the Stone records should be released, which itself overturned a county judge’s determination that they were exempt.