For the past several years, police departments in Massachusetts have been routinely denying the public access to “incident reports,” the written narratives of police responses to alleged crimes. Law enforcement agencies used to disclose these reports as a matter of course, sometimes redacting sensitive information. But now, every week, I and other media lawyers at my firm hear from reporters who are being denied basic information about such things as car accidents and drug arrests. The police withhold this information despite the strong presumption in our new, strengthened Public Records Act that all government documents must be made open for public inspection unless a specific exemption makes them confidential.
The damage this excessive secrecy poses to local journalism is well reported, but it’s not only the public’s right to know that can suffer. In some cases, the refusal to release incident reports can threaten the criminal justice system itself, potentially keeping innocent people behind bars and allowing dangerous criminals to remain free in the community. This problem is illustrated by the case of Frederick Clay, who was freed from prison this week after serving 38 years for a crime he did not commit.
Around 4 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 16, 1979, a taxicab pulled up to the Archdale Housing Project in the Roslindale neighborhood of Boston. Three young men exited the cab and then pulled the cab driver, Jeffrey Boyajian, out of the car and onto the ground. Witnesses claimed that two of the assailants were around 6 feet tall, and the other was shorter, about 5 feet 8 inches. All three were wearing dark clothing, possibly including black leather jackets. The men searched through Boyajian’s pockets and beat him as he cried, “Take what you want, but let me live.” After stepping away from Boyajian, the shorter man took out a handgun with his left hand and shot Boyajian five times. The attackers fled on foot.
The police subjected two of the witnesses of the morning’s events to hypnosis to try to help them identify a suspect — a practice that would soon (thankfully) be ruled unlawful. One of these witnesses didn’t see the attack at all — he just thought he’d seen the trio get into Boyajian’s cab earlier that night. The second, a young man with an intellectual disability, saw the attack from a second-story window. Neither witness was sure he could identify anyone before hypnosis, but after it — and after other procedures that would today be deemed too suggestive — both picked out Frederick Clay, age 16.
Clay insisted he was asleep in his room at a foster home on the night of the crime, and his foster mother corroborated his alibi at trial. Clay was also right-handed, not left-handed like the shooter. But the police figured they had their suspect. That’s why they failed to follow up on indications that two other Archdale residents — a left-handed 16-year-old who was 5 feet 8 inches and his much taller brother — may have been the real culprits. On Aug. 19, 1981, a jury convicted Clay of first degree murder, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
After years of fruitless appeals and post-conviction motions, Clay’s case came to the attention of attorneys Lisa Kavanaugh and Jeffrey Harris. Kavanaugh learned of the other suspect and his possible links to the crime, so she sent public records requests to the Boston Police for incident reports of his arrests around the time of the shooting. She was hoping to get mugshots of the suspect, details of his physical appearance, and other evidence showing that he matched the descriptions of the shooter, as well as information about his propensity to engage in robberies like the one that claimed Boyajian’s life.
The initial response of the Boston Police was a flat “no.” In a May 2015 letter, they told Kavanaugh that her request for the report of a 1985 arrest for assault and battery would be denied because she knew the names of the “parties involved” (she’d mentioned them in the requests to help the police identify the reports). and therefore their “privacy” could not be protected through redaction. Also, the police said, the report contained “investigatory material” (even though the investigation was long over) and “arrest information” that is “protected from disclosure” under the Criminal Offender Record Information (CORI) law.
These are the same justifications police departments are now using to deny access to police reports to the media, and they are wrong. As I’ve explained elsewhere, neither the “investigatory” exemption to the public records law nor the CORI statute permit the withholding of entire incident reports. Nonetheless, the Massachusetts State Police recently argued to the supervisor of records for the secretary of state’s office that it does not have an obligation even to try to redact police reports — it can instead withhold them in their entirety whenever they want. (There’s a reason the State Police won the Investigative Reporters & Editors 2015 “Golden Padlock Award,” a national recognition given to the most secretive government agency in the country.)
Kavanaugh didn’t take no for an answer. She asked me to intercede on her behalf with counsel for the Boston Police, and after much back and forth, including a threat of a lawsuit, the police agreed to produce reports for a number of incidents involving the other suspect from the 1980s — while still insisting on redacting his name (as if Kavanaugh didn’t already know it). Those reports led to other reports, and ultimately to a section of Kavanaugh’s and Harris’ masterful 75-page motion for a new trial that addressed the similarity of the other suspect’s appearance to descriptions of the Boyajian attacker and showed his propensity to commit similar crimes.
The Suffolk County DA’s office did its own investigation in response to Clay’s motion, and this past Tuesday — just one week before Clay was to be released on parole — the office assented to his motion and decided not to re-prosecute the case. The DA’s office did so in part because it agreed that the lead on the other suspect should have been pursued. In an emotional hearing in courtroom 906, Judge Christine Roach granted Clay’s motion, ordered his shackles removed, and declared him a free man — after serving 38 years in prison for a crime he did not commit.
The incident reports in Clay’s case played only a small part in his release, but they corroborated an important alternative theory of who may have committed a heinous murder. The Boston Police should be commended for reversing their initial determination and releasing the records. But the problem remains: Absent judicial or legislative intervention, police departments will continue to deny access to incident reports for no good reason, regardless of whether they may shed light on an unsolved case, reveal important trends in law enforcement, or possibly free an innocent person. For the sake of the criminal justice system and the public’s right to know, that practice must end — and soon.
Jeffrey J. Pyle is a partner in the Media and First Amendment Law group at Prince Lobel Tye, LLP, in Boston.