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Harrison jail beating prompts newspaper's pursuit of records

An inmate's fatal beating at the Harrison County jail in 2006 raised questions the Sun Herald believed public records could help answer.

The newspaper filed a series of public-records requests with the Sheriff's Department, but the agency denied most of the requests, claiming the documents were not public records because they were part of a criminal investigation.

The newspaper filed a lawsuit in February 2007, a year after the inmate's death, and won a key decision - a state court judge ruled that the newspaper was denied public records in violation of the Mississippi Public Records Act. Further, the judge ruled that records compiled by a law enforcement agency as part of its operation are public records and are not exempt.

Sun Herald attorney Henry Laird called the ruling in May a significant decision to strengthen the state's public records laws. However, the ruling didn't immediately provide the records the newspaper sought.

By then, the Sheriff's Department and the Mississippi Department of Public Safety were willing to turn over copies of the documents but they no longer had the records. The documents had either been seized by federal agents or were ordered turned over after federal authorities learned the newspaper had filed a lawsuit.

The incident that prompted the newspaper's lawsuit was the unprovoked assault on Jessie Lee Williams Jr., who died of brain trauma from a beating in the jail booking room. The incident led to a federal investigation of a conspiracy to deprive inmates' civil rights under color of law.

The Sun Herald wanted copies of inmate grievances, which the newspaper believed would show that authorities over the jail had been warned of a pattern of abuse by jailers. The newspaper also wanted a copy of the surveillance tapes that recorded the fatal beating of Williams.

Chancery Court Judge Jim Persons ruled in the newspaper's favor, but he couldn't force the sheriff or the state to turn over records no longer in their possession. The newspaper then filed a motion in federal court to ask that sealed records in the federal case be opened and the newspaper be given copies of the documents it wanted.

U.S. Chief Magistrate Judge John M. Roper denied the newspaper access to the video and the inmate complaints, citing the federal investigation and a pending trial. However, the judge reviewed sealed records, ordered several opened and prohibited parties in the case from sealing future documents without the court's prior approval.

Former jailer Ryan Teel was convicted in August of charges including the murder of Jessie Williams. In November, Teel was sentenced to life in prison and nine ex-jailers were sentenced on guilty pleas related to the conspiracy to deprive inmates' rights under color of law.

A federal court order after Teel's conviction provided the Sun Herald a copy of the videotaped beating. The newspaper made the surveillance tapes available for public view on its Web site.

The newspaper has not received copies of inmate complaints because the documents remain part of the federal investigation. However, the lawsuit set a precedent that promotes openness in government, the Sun Herald's attorney said.

"The Mississippi Public Records Act is to be construed liberally in favor of openness and narrowly against any exemptions," Laird said.

"There are two exemptions which law enforcement has over the years misinterpreted by claiming exemptions that weren't allowed. Unless it is directly related to an ongoing criminal investigation and unless the record is compiled by a law enforcement agency as part of a criminal investigation, it's not exempt."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Gulf Publishing Co., which publishes the Sun Herald and is a subsidiary of The McClatchy Co.

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