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Trial exhibits returned for retrial exempt from disclosure

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Trial exhibits returned for retrial exempt from disclosure11/04/96 NORTH CAROLINA--The state Court of Appeals in Raleigh held in mid-October that…

Trial exhibits returned for retrial exempt from disclosure

11/04/96

NORTH CAROLINA–The state Court of Appeals in Raleigh held in mid-October that previously admitted trial exhibits which were returned to the district attorney’s office for retrial purposes are exempt from disclosure under the state Public Records Act.

Times-News Publishing Co. requested access to the exhibits and the trial transcript after the state Supreme Court in Raleigh granted a new trial to Mark Crotts, who was convicted of first degree murder in November 1992. The Supreme Court directed the Superior Court in Graham to return to the parties evidence that was introduced at the original trial, including the murder weapon, blood scrapings, fingerprints and crime scene photographs.

In June 1995, Times-News filed a state Public Records Act request with the district attorney for access to the trial transcript and the exhibits. Both the prosecution and the defense opposed the newspaper’s motion and requested that the court issue a protective order. The court denied the motions for a protective order and directed the district attorney to give the newspaper access to the “physical exhibits introduced at the trial.” The court declined to compel disclosure of the trial transcript.

The state appealed the court’s ruling on the exhibits, arguing that the statute expressly exempts criminal investigation records from disclosure. The newspaper argued that when the exhibits were entered into evidence during Crotts’ first trial, they became part of the “public domain” and lost their exempt status under the statute.

The Court of Appeals agreed with the state, and held that such material is exempt under the state Public Records Act. The court reasoned that even though the exhibits were accessible when they were admitted into evidence and in possession of the clerk of court, once they were returned to the district attorney’s office for purposes of a retrial they again became records in a criminal investigation and therefore were no longer public. (Times-News Publishing Company v. North Carolina; Media Counsel: John Bussian, Durham)