Posts Tagged ‘secrecy’

FOI Fail of the Week: Judge’s secrecy leads to order for new mental competency trial in Idaho child murder case

Joseph Duncan, a convicted child killer, was ordered back into court by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals because of secrecy problems in his previous trial.

The federal judge who presided over the previous court proceedings had two mental evaluations of Duncan but never held a competency hearing before he permitted the man to waive his chance to appeal the death sentence he received, according to a July 11 Spokesman-Review article.

The high court has determined that there must be a “retrospective” competency hearing, which will evaluate whether Duncan was in fact competent when he waived his appeal in November 2008.

Duncan was convicted of the 2005 kidnapping, torture and murder of a boy from North Idaho, and if he is considered competent after this hearing his death sentence will continue.

If he is found not to have been competent, there will be another hearing to find out whether he was competent when he decided to represent himself in court. If the court decides he wasn’t, it would lead to another penalty phase hearing in which he would be better represented.

Previous courts have decided that Duncan was competent during their proceedings.

Secrecy was a staple of Duncan’s previous trial in Idaho, where U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge kept his mental evaluations secret by failing to hold a hearing in court and sealed various records from public view.

Some of the secrecy was due to the fact that the case involved the murdered 9-year-old boy’s younger sister, who survived the attack. In addition to killing the boy, Duncan also killed three other members of the household in order to kidnap and molest the brother and sister.

His triple death sentences are for his torture and murder of the boy.

Although some secrecy in such a case can be considered appropriate, the appeals  court deemed the judge’s decision not to hold a mental competency hearing unacceptable.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email ( or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).

FOI DAILY DOSE: British Columbia gets proactive about open gov, Mass. budget planned in secret

British Columbia plans for more transparency

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark is poised to make good on her promise to make government more transparent, notably with a directive supporting the active disclosure of data.

Clark has already promoted online communications and town-hall meetings as important avenues for open government, and her proposed policy of proactive disclosure would greatly increase citizens’ access to government information.

British Columbia’s government would regularly make data public that is currently only accessible through formal freedom of information act requests, according to a Vancouver Sun editorial.

Clark plans to move toward an open data model that will provide citizens with information on a variety of topics, ranging from the environment to health to spending, in a searchable and easily accessible format.

Information and Privacy Commissioner Elizabeth Denham has warned the government that privacy rights must be considered when planning such broad information disclosures.

Stephanie Cadieux, Minister of Labour, Citizens’ Services and Open Government,  and the cabinet committee on open government are developing a specific game plan for implementing this open data policy, although – ironically – it is exempt from access-to-information legislation (as are all cabinet committees).

Mass. budget negotiated behind closed doors

The Massachusetts legislature negotiated a $30.6 billion budget deal in almost total secrecy.

The budget, approved in July, was planned by six legislators who met for 24 days in discussions kept out of the public’s notice. The locations and times for the meet-ups, as well as their agendas and debates, were kept quiet, and no minutes were taken for any of the meetings, according to the Boston Globe.

This kind of information blackout isn’t uncommon in Massachusetts, which has almost no requirements for lawmakers to publicly discuss government business. Fewer than 20 states have similar secrecy practices, and Massachusetts is one of about 10 states in which citizens don’t even have the right to see legislators’ records.

Although public testimony was collected and floor debates were held concerning the budget, the key choices made at the opening and closing of deliberations were decided in secret.

When the legislature votes to approve measures, it is often more of a formality because key leaders have already made the real agreements behind closed doors.

If you want to know more about Massachusetts’ not-so-open open government laws and how they compare to those of other states, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has an open government guide that’s awfully helpful.

– Morgan Watkins

Morgan Watkins is SPJ’s summer Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern and a University of Florida student. Reach her by email ( or connect with her on Twitter (@morganwatkins26).


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