By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

How our shameful public records law is affecting the Karen Read murder trial

Massachusetts Statehouse. Photo (cc) 2015 by Upstateherd.

The murder trial of Karen Read is, without question, one of the strangest spectacles we’ve seen in Massachusetts for a long time.

Read has been charged with driving over her boyfriend, former Boston police officer John O’Keefe, and leaving him to die in a snowbank. Read counters that she’s being framed — that, in fact, O’Keefe was beaten up, bitten by a dog and dragged outside. Adding to all of this is a murky federal investigation of the Norfolk County district attorney’s office and the involvement of Aiden Kearney, the Turtleboy blogger who has taken up Read’s cause and who’s been charged with witness intimidation and illegal wiretapping.

In one sense, though, it’s a very familiar story. Crucially important evidence is being withheld from the public because of our state’s restrictive public records laws. As Sean Cotter reports in The Boston Globe, autopsy reports are not considered public records in Massachusetts. We’re not unique in that regard. Citing information from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, Cotter writes that among the very few states where autopsy records are considered public are Alabama, Colorado, California and Florida.

“If the public cannot see the documents that judges rely on in the course of making decisions, the public cannot make decisions on whether the judge’s decisions are correct,” First Amendment lawyer Jeffrey Pyle told the Globe.

The Norfolk DA’s office turned down the Globe’s public records request, with spokesman David Traub telling the paper, “The examination and cross-examination of the medical examiner will be where you get your answers.”

Massachusetts has long had a reputation for being among the worst states with regard to open government. About a decade ago, the Center for Public Integrity gave the state a D-plus in an overall accountability score as well as an F for public access to information. The state’s public records law was strengthened in 2016, but it remains woefully inadequate.

So let’s give a New England Muzzle Award to the Massachusetts legislature for failing to take any meaningful action to ensure that the public’s business will be conducted in public. The autopsy report on Officer O’Keefe’s death should be made public — and that’s just a small part of the much larger problem that our elected officials would rather operate in the dark than let the light shine in.

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  1. James Nichols-Worley

    This might be the rare case where I disagree. Massachusetts might have overly strict and unhelpful public records laws in the case of police misconduct and some executive functions, but:

    “If the public cannot see the documents that judges rely on in the course of making decisions, the public cannot make decisions on whether the judge’s decisions are correct.”

    Strikes me as a little silly. Isn’t the whole point that the court is insulated from public opinion in any particular case? The entire Karen Read saga has been a conspiracy theory circus. It’s unclear if the autopsy report needs to be released *during* the trial.

  2. Mary Hobbins DeChillo

    Your article assumes that every town committee is maintaining agendas and meeting minutes as per the Commonwealth’s Open Meeting and Open Records statutes.

    When I went to my town’s website to become informed about the work of one particular town committee’s work, I found agendas but few, if any, meeting minutes for that committee (which by the time of my inquiry had met for 6 years).

    Curious about whether or not the many other town committees were in compliance, I reviewed all of the town committees meeting minutes over many years. There was no consistency in format and little content which would allow an ordinary citizen to follow the work of the committee and how decisions were made.

    I shared my findings with the Town Administrator and the Select Board. They took no action, despite the fact that the absence of written minutes can leave the town (and them) open to litigation. The Town Administrator loves to tout at Town Meeting the “extraordinary” work of these town volunteer committees. At least one of these committees is a rogue committee using state grants. He provides no oversight over them. He is the same person who delays almost all FOIA requests well beyond the legal limits.

    We have had no reliable local newspaper for several years to shed light on local government. The absence of reporting at the local level really shows in how the Town Administrator and some members of the SB have been emboldened to operate ex camera. A local group of journalists is attempting to create a local paper. It can’t happen soon enough!

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