Friday, December 21, 2007

Documents must remain public

Pennsylvania lawmakers, before scurrying off for the holidays, almost- but not quite- approved a bill that would overhaul the state's pathetic excuse for an open-records law. So, when they return in January, they will begin the process of winnowing through 19 last-minute amendments inserted into the bill.

In what has become almost a mantra, editorial page writers support the legislation, describing the existing open-records law in Pennsylvania as "woefully ineffective." And while the revisions passed by the House are far from perfect, they say it's an improvement over existing law. See here and here. But in its Sunday editorial, The Patriot-News addressed a provision in the bill that hasn't gotten enough attention.

Under existing open-records law, coroner reports are considered to be public documents. But under the proposed bill, they would no longer be generally available to the public.

According to the editorial:
While the argument is made that open autopsy reports would lead to their misuse, the fact is that they are open under existing law and there is virtually no record of misuse. This is a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

Pete Shellem, an investigative reporter with The Patriot-News, has uncovered information that over the years has freed four innocent people unjustly convicted of murder from prison. (The American Journalism Review did a great profile on him in July.) Last week, Shellem spoke to the ACLU's south-central PA chapter about the open-records bill. He says when he begins an investigation, he usually begins with the coroner's report of the murder victim. He's gotten some pretty important information from the documents - key information overlooked by both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

So, it's crucial that in the final version of any open-records law that these documents remain available to the public. Closing these records would eliminate a critical oversight the press now has into the legal system

And while the documents would be public record if introduced into evidence during a trial, Shellem pointed out that frequently cases don't go to trial. Often, the accused accepts a plea bargain, pleading guilty in exchange for a lighter sentence.

And, as Shellem pointed out, every innocent person behind bars means a guilty person out walking the streets.

Lauri in York

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