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Fourth Circuit: Most Police Records in DNA Exoneration Case Are Public

On October 1, 2004, the Fourth Circuit court of appeals decided that most of the sealed documents in a lawsuit involving the DNA exoneration of a man convicted of a rape-murder should be available to the public.

Earl Washington, Jr., was convicted of the 1982 rape-murder of Rebecca Lynn Williams in Culpepper, Virginia. Ten years later his death sentence was commuted to life. In 2000 he was pardoned based on DNA evidence. Washington filed a 42 U.S.C. § 1983 civil rights suit in federal district court alleging the police violated his constitutional rights.

Washington requested a subpoena duces tecum requiring the production of all documents related to the murder and his arrest, confession and prosecution. The Virginia Department of State Police (VDSP) released most of the documents, but withheld 15 documents, claiming they contained sensitive information about a suspect and could compromise the ongoing criminal investigation. Washington moved to compel production of the documents and the district court ordered them released, but sealed the documents, limiting the release to the parties, their lawyers, the lawyers' employees and designated experts.

Later, Washington sought to lift the protective order and media entities moved for released of the documents. The district court ordered all but one document unsealed. VDSP appealed.

The Fourth Circuit held that there were two aspects to the right of access--a weaker, common-law right and a stronger, First Amendment right. The First Amendment applied to documents filed as exhibits supporting a case-dispositive motion, such as a motion for summary judgment. This applied to 9 of the documents. Furthermore, the VDSP had already released information about the suspect in other documents it had made public, eliminating the basis for its objections to the release of those documents. Therefore, the district court did not err in ordering the documents unsealed.

It was not clear that the First Amendment applied to the remaining documents, which had been used as exhibits in non-case-dispositive pre-trial motions. However, the VDSP had advanced no argument as to why one document should not be released. Therefore, it should be unsealed pursuant to the common law right of access.

The Fourth Circuit remanded the issue of the remaining four documents to the district court for it to determine whether there was a First Amendment or common law right to access and whether there were compelling reasons to restrict that access. Thus, the district court's order unsealing the documents was affirmed with respect to 10 documents and remanded for further consideration with respect to 4 documents.

See: Virginia Department of State Police v. Washington Post, 386 F.3d 567 (4th Cir. 2004).

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Related legal case

Virginia Department of State Police v. Washington Post