The New Hampshire Union Leader / The Concord Monitor
December 21, 2006
Court to rehear Murray suit - Justices: Police must justify secretiveness
By Katharine Webster
CONCORD -- The state Supreme Court says state police must give more detailed descriptions and reasons for refusing to disclose their investigative records in the disappearance of Massachusetts college student Maura Murray.
The ruling came Wednesday, only a week after oral arguments. The justices sent the case back to a lower court for a new hearing.
State police "have not met their burden to demonstrate how disclosure of the requested documents could reasonably be expected to interfere with any investigation or enforcement proceedings," the court said in a unanimous decision.
Murray was 21 years old when she was last seen on the night of Feb. 9, 2004, shortly after crashing her car into a snowbank next to Route 112 in Haverhill.
Her father, Fred Murray, of Weymouth, Mass., sued to obtain the investigative files under the state Right-to-Know Law.
"We didn't get what we asked for yet," Murray said in a statement. "We were proven correct in our assessment that the state has not met its burden to show that the records should be withheld."
His lawyer, Timothy Ervin, said yesterday the ruling was "fair and balanced," although the court did not require the release of any records.
"We've said all along that the state has not met its burden to show that all the records they have fall within the exemption" to the Right-to-Know Law, he said. "In fairness, (the justices) couldn't order a release of records without knowing the nature of the records."
Fred Murray has said the information could aid private investigators trying to determine his daughter's fate. However, the volunteer private investigators disagreed.
"Even if the court decided that some or all of those records should be released, we don't want them," John Healy, a former state trooper who is coordinating the volunteer effort, said Wednesday. "We understand the damage it could do if certain investigative theories or avenues that led to dead ends were made public."
A superior court judge had agreed, ruling in favor of state police after he reviewed a list outlining 20 categories of records that were being withheld, such as "photographs," "correspondence," "maps and diagrams" and "tax records."
The high court said those categories were too vague for anyone to determine whether disclosure would compromise the police investigation or future criminal prosecution. They said the law clearly puts the burden on government agencies to justify withholding documents from public scrutiny.
"If the respondents continue to resist disclosure, they must make a presentation that will allow the superior court to determine how disclosure of the requested information could interfere with an ongoing investigation or enforcement proceedings," Associate Justice Richard Galway wrote for the court.
However, the ruling stopped well short of giving Fred Murray what he sought: either an index describing every record being withheld and the reason for keeping it confidential, so he could challenge the nondisclosure; or a requirement that a judge review the records and rule on each one.
The state Attorney General's Office had argued that would impose an overwhelming burden on police and the courts: The file in Murray's disappearance contains more than 2,500 records. Senior Assistant Attorney General Nancy Smith also argued the records, including witness interviews and police reports, could become critical evidence in a criminal prosecution.
Smith said yesterday that state police will be able to show their records should remain confidential.
On the Net: The ruling: http://www.courts.state.nh.us/supreme/opinions/2006/murra152.pdf