In April 2012, Attorney David Chester of Tallahassee filed a lawsuit against Sheriff Larry Campbell and Sgt. Brian Pearson. The lawsuit alleges that Sgt. Pearson, the lead detective in the shooting death of David Mays, kept a “secret” file on the Mays investigation. The “secret file” was to have included personal case notes and other documents. It was reported that after receiving a public-records request, Sgt. Pearson ran the materials, including compact discs through a paper shredder. All and all, at the time of the request—nothing was handed over.
David Chester’s lawsuit was covered by Circuit Judge Kevin J. Carroll, who issued an order of the Sheriff’s Office to show cause as to why the requests in the lawsuit should not be granted. The judge gave them 60 days to comply.
On February 7, 2011, my 17-year-old son, DeShon Thomas was charged with 2 counts of 1st Degree Premeditated Murder (narrowly missing a 3rd count of murder because the female victim in this case (his 20-year-old ex-girlfriend) was about 21 weeks pregnant at the time). Through interviews of people close to the victims, eyewitness accounts, my son’s employer (alibis), law enforcement officer’s statements and other crucial information—the victims’ time of death is essential to this case. My son, who is now 18-years-old, has been in the Leon County Jail for approximately 458 days. From day one, I’d always inquired about the time of death of the victims. Only to be told that the 2 victims autopsy reports are “confidential” information.
Not long after George Zimmerman’s arrest for the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Discovery documents, including his autopsy report, were released to the public. Soon Trayvon Martin’s Autopsy Report was all over the Internet and on the front page of newspapers. Seeing all of this reignited the fact that I still did not know what the time of death was of the victims in my son’s case. Now, I wanted to know how to go about getting a copy of the victims’ autopsy report.
I called the Leon County Clerk of Courts—they did not have it. They referred me to the State Attorney’s Office. Well, to me—that’s like a woman asking an abusive husband to put a steak over the black eye that he gave her. I was reluctant to call the State Attorney’s Office. Instead I called the District Two Medical Examiner’s Office. The person whom I spoke with over the phone was very, very nice and helpful. The person told me that I could in fact get a copy of the victims’ autopsy report but only after their case is closed. Huh–? The person told me that the case status showed “on-going investigation”. I explained that there had been an arrest in the case. I asked why does it say that it’s an “on-going investigation”? Unfortunately, the person couldn’t answer that question. However, the person was able to answer a few of my questions successfully. But in the end, I was referred back to the State Attorney’s Office. I called the State Attorney’s Office being vague but also letting them know what I was looking for in the Discovery. I felt like I would be more successful if I just put in the request in person. When I arrived in Tallahassee, the second place I went was to the courthouse. Yes—I went to the State Attorney’s Office. I explained to the woman what I was looking for—a copy of the Medical Examiner’s Report. She pulled the victims information up on the computer. She seemed to be stunned to see that although there was an arrest on the case, the status of the case stated “on-going investigation”. When I asked her who was responsible for closing investigations so that these records can be accessed by the public, she told me that the secretaries were responsible for closing the case. Then she told me that, if I wanted to know why the case had not been closed, then I needed to speak with Jack Campbell—not his secretary. She told me that he was the only one who could tell me—why the case has not been closed. She then pointed out the directions to his office. I didn’t bother to go to his office. Simply because they seem to have sealed my son’s cell phone records and now they’ve left this case file open so that no one can access their autopsy report.
Hide-and-Go-Seek 101—players conceal themselves in the environment, to be found by one or more seekers.
I can’t begin to imagine how many other cases are out there fighting really hard for access to public records.