When Tremont residents Paula and Harold Kennedy tried to get the investigative file on the 2004 murder of the their son Brian, the couple's requests were denied.
Although the confessed assailant committed suicide and investigators closed the case, the Kennedys were told state law prohibits their access to their son's murder record. The Mississippi Public Records Act exempts information gathered for a criminal investigation.
The problem is that Mississippi allows too many exceptions to its Open Records law, said First Amendment expert and Jackson-based attorney Leonard Van Slyke. And the process for challenging them is difficult and costly.
"Everybody told us we had to go to court," Paula Kennedy recalled. "Every time we requested, they said you'll just have to file a lawsuit. But at that point the lawsuit was totally going to be at our expense."
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Sun Herald
An attorney retainer fee would have cost $10,000 up front, Kennedy said. And she was told expenses likely would double or triple before the trial ended. Plus, she said, the family had slim chances of winning since the law already sided with those withholding the file.
Van Slyke said it's one thing for news organizations to take a public body to court - they have money and resources. But it's another matter for the average citizen to do it.
"You rarely see individuals who can take that risk," Van Slyke said.
The Kennedys opted not to take it. Instead, they contacted an attorney friend who made formal written requests to the agencies on their behalf asking for the records. The family also launched its own letter-writing campaign.
All the efforts were blocked.
So the Kennedys went to state Rep. Steve Holland, D-Plantersville, who helped sponsor a bill in 2007 that would've made an exclusion to the law. In essence, it would have allowed investigative records of all closed cases to become public.
But Holland's bill was merged with another bill, and the whole matter ultimately died during the Legislature's 2007 session. Efforts to revive the issue are expected in 2008.
Holland said he was disappointed.
"I would like to see more transparency all up and down the food chain," he said. "But transparency isn't something that public entities, and even the Legislature, particularly care for."
It wasn't until the Itawamba County Times wrote an article about the family's struggles several months later that the victims' assistant for the state attorney general contacted the Kennedys. With that person's help, the family was able to get some - but not all - of the information from the file around Thanksgiving 2007.
"It's been a long struggle," Paula Kennedy said. "But we were able to gain some information. We know that none of this will help us bring our son back, but it will help us to put closure on this."
The Mississippi Bureau of Investigation, however, still refuses to share its file on the case.
Delores Lewis, spokeswoman for the Department of Public Safety, said DPS does not believe there is discretion allowed in the exemptions. Lewis said the Kennedys were given other avenues for information about their son's slaying.
"We suggested that a victim-witness coordinator and investigator meet with the family to answer its questions concerning the case," Lewis said.
Paula Kennedy said that did not work. The investigator, local law enforcement and DPS administrators "tossed it back and forth" but the family got no further on its request.