Posts Tagged ‘trial’

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 Fail of the Week: Unclassified docs kept secret in Drake trial

Classified information is obviously meant to remain secret. But apparently, unclassified documents should stay secret too.

At least, the prosecution in the Thomas Drake whistleblower court case thinks so. And on Thursday, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett agreed.

Unclassified but “sensitive” information will be withheld from Drake’s trial because, under the National Security Agency Act of 1959, prosecutors can request that classified and unclassified information can be kept secret from the jurors and replaced with other substitutions.

This legal privilege has been used by the government to refuse releasing records under FOIA, but this is the first time it has been used in criminal trials.

Although the court has decided keeping the unclassified information undisclosed in the trial is acceptable and will not affect Drake’s defense, his lawyers argued otherwise in a May 30 response to the prosecution’s request.

The substitutions agreed to by the court will “signal to the jury that the Court and the government believe information in the document was so potentially damaging to national security that it had to be withheld from the public — the very fact they must decide.”

– 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: NYT reporter subpoenaed in CIA leak case and Wisconsin voting issues


A New York Times reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner, James Risen, was subpoenaed by the U.S. Department of Justice for the trial of a suspected government whistleblower.

The accused leaker, Jeffrey Sterling, was indicted in December 2010 by a federal grand jury in Virginia. He is on trial for allegedly providing national defense information to Risen that appeared in a 2006 book called “State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration.”

No federal law exists that exempts journalists from testifying. Risen’s lawyer told The Associated Press he would attempt to have a judge override the subpoena.

The Society of Professional Journalists has, with other journalism groups and news outlets, pushed for a federal shield law in recent years. The proposed Free Flow of Information Act would protect journalists like Risen from turning over confidential sources and notes in federal cases, though there would be certain national security exceptions.


In Wisconsin, Media Trackers investigated voting practices during the April 5 election using open records requests.

From a small sample of registrations in 15 wards, Media Trackers found evidence of incomplete voter registrations and possible voter registration abuses.

Providing proof of residence for voters was a major problem uncovered by the records request. In one instance, a voter provided an acceptance letter from the University of Minnesota as a proof of residence, which wouldn’t be deemed acceptable under the guidelines by the Wisconsin Government Accountability Board.

– 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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