The racially charged turmoil in Ferguson, Mo., sparked by the killing last month of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager shot by a white police officer, has opened another divisive chapter, this time over attempts by news organizations to access public records of Mr. Brown’s past, if such records exist.
In the aftermath of the violence that followed protests over Brown’s death, Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis with a majority African American population but nearly all white police force and political leadership, has been the focus of state and federal efforts to defuse tensions.
Now the media search for information on Brown is prompting accusations of violations of privacy and even an attempt to blame the victim.
On Wednesday, a judge heard arguments from two media organizations seeking access to his possible juvenile records. During a 40-minute hearing, lawyers for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the GotNews.com website sought to discover if such records even exist.
For their part, the news organizations have said they are simply doing their job: seeking pertinent information related to a case of national, even international, interest.
The media cases focus on tight legal arguments, such as whether a right to confidentiality exists after death. But the pursuit of Mr. Brown’s past is resonating in the larger court of public opinion, where a search for the truth and the public’s right to know is smacking up against outrage that the victim’s character is being called into question.
“It strikes me as a shame that this is devolving into a sideshow detracting from the main issues that remain unresolved for the community of Ferguson,” says Mae Quinn, a professor of law at Washington University in St. Louis.
The cases are taking attention away from the many unanswered questions for the residents of Ferguson, says Professor Quinn, adding that it is a further shame that “there isn’t greater respect for the juvenile system and the privacy of this child and his family.”
To some watchers, this has the unsavory feel of “blaming the victim,” says Riya Shah, a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia.
“This feels as if they are searching for something to somehow justify his killing,” Ms. Shah says.
If any records exist, she notes, “they are irrelevant to what is going on now.”
In Missouri, juvenile records are confidential – although privacy protections are removed if an individual is charged with certain violent crimes. According to police, Brown had no adult criminal record.
Brown was never found delinquent of the juvenile equivalents of any Class A or B felony charges, and was not facing any at the time he died, a court official said this morning at the hearing, according to The St. Louis Post Dispatch.
Since there is no video or audio of the actual shooting, witness testimony is going to be crucial, says attorney Jonathon Burns, who is representing GotNews.com editor-in-chief, Charles Johnson, in his lawsuit.
“This is where the character for both men becomes relevant,” Burns says.
For his part, Mr. Johnson says his motivations are purely professional.
“I file these kinds of requests to make our government more transparent all the time,” he says, adding that he regards the effort as delivering important information that the public needs to know.
Johnson says he sees the case as simply a freedom of information issue.
But since he filed the lawsuit, Johnson says, “It has been very interesting because I have been accused of being all kinds of terrible things.”
The reality is simpler, he says: “All I really want is to know the truth about whether there are records or not.”
At the same time, Quinn says, the central legal issue has little legal standing.
“There is nothing in the juvenile code that would support the claim that privacy and confidentiality end at death,” she says.
Johnson’s lawsuit cites a 1984 Missouri Court of Appeals ruling as precedent, one in which juvenile records were used. In that case, the juvenile records of an 18-year-old killed by a security guard in 1979 while shoplifting were released in a wrongful death lawsuit.
Quinn says the earlier case does not lay the ground for disclosure of confidential information. In that case, she says, the court only looked at whether already available records could be introduced as relevant evidence.
“It is a very narrow decision relating to a very narrow question of evidence,” she says. “There was no resolution of the issue of whether confidential records could be released in the first instance,” she adds.
However, the judge’s decision regarding Brown’s records, if any exist, has the potential to be significant beyond its immediate context.
“This could have an impact on future decisions with respect to the confidentiality of juvenile records,” Shah says.