High court to decide if 911 transcripts in Biddeford shootings will be released

Posted Aug. 31, 2013, at 2:07 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 31, 2013, at 5:17 p.m.
Derrick Thompson (left) and Alivia Welch.
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Derrick Thompson (left) and Alivia Welch.
Bartolo Ford addresses the judge in Androscoggin County Superior Court before he sentenced Ford to 20 years in prison with all but nine years suspended, plus six years of probation for the attempted murder of an Auburn police officer.
Amber Waterman | Sun Journal
Bartolo Ford addresses the judge in Androscoggin County Superior Court before he sentenced Ford to 20 years in prison with all but nine years suspended, plus six years of probation for the attempted murder of an Auburn police officer.

PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial Court will consider Sept. 9 whether the transcripts of 911 calls made in connection with a Dec. 29 shooting in Biddeford that left two people dead and another wounded should be released.

It is one of more than 20 appeals the court will consider next month.

James Pak, 74, of Biddeford was charged with two counts of murder after a standoff that left two teenagers dead and the mother of one of them wounded. Pak allegedly shot and killed Derrick Thompson, 19, and his girlfriend, Alivia Welch, 18, and injured Thompson’s mother, Susan Johnson, 44, in a dispute over snow removal and parking. Pak was the victims’ landlord.

Attorneys for the Portland Press Herald earlier this year sued the Maine Attorney General’s Office in Cumberland County Superior Court after prosecutors refused to release the transcripts of three 911 calls made to police before and after the shootings.

Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, known as the Sunshine Law, allows for the release of the transcripts of emergency calls as long as confidential information such as names, addresses and phone numbers are redacted, according to briefs filed in the appeal.

The attorney general’s office, which is responsible for prosecuting all homicide cases, took the position that the recordings and transcripts constituted intelligence and investigative information and are exempt from the state’s Sunshine Law.

The newspaper has asked justices to overturn a March 8 ruling by Superior Court Justice Roland Cole that sealed the transcripts. Cole found that release of the transcripts “could hypothetically influence the input of potential witnesses” at a trial.

Deputy Attorney General William Stokes in his brief said that Cole’s decision should be upheld.

“In Maine, we have a lengthy history of not sensationalizing homicide investigations or prosecutions,” he wrote. “The investigation and prosecution of major crimes should be allowed to proceed in the normal course through the judicial system before potentially prejudicial and highly emotional information is widely publicized by the media.”

A “friend of the court brief” has been filed by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the New England First Amendment Center, the Maine Association of Broadcasters, the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition and the Associated Press. A brief filed on behalf of the organizations urged justices to release the transcripts.

“The state’s attempt to eliminate public access to any and all 911 transcripts (and other documents) that it places in an investigative file is contrary to the proper reading of the laws in question, the purposes of FOAA, the presumptions in favor of access, and public policy,” attorney Patrick Strawbridge of Boston wrote. “The suppression of 911 transcripts would threaten the ability of reporters to provide the public with valuable, timely information regarding the response and performance of their emergency officials.”

Pak has pleaded not guilty to two counts of intentional or knowing murder and one count each of attempted murder with the use of a firearm, elevated aggravated assault and burglary. A trial date has not been set.

Pak is being held without bail. If convicted, he faces between 25 years and life in prison.

Justices also will consider appeals in the following cases:

Thayne Ormsby, 23, of Ellsworth, who is serving three life sentences for murder in the stabbing deaths of Jeffrey Ryan, 55, Ryan’s son Jesse, 10, and Ryan family friend Jason Dehahn, 30, all of Amity, on June 22, 2010. Attorneys for Ormsby have said that his conviction should be overturned because his Miranda rights were violated and the trial should have been held outside of Aroostook County.

Bartolo Ford, 52, of Lisbon, who was sentenced in November 2010 in Androscoggin County Superior to 20 years in prison with all but nine suspended for trying to kill an Auburn police officer by ramming his cruiser with a dump truck during a high-speed chase two years earlier. Attorneys for Ford have argued that the trial judge should have instructed the jury on self-defense and intoxication.

Kristine Lowe, 20, of West Paris, who is charged with two counts of manslaughter in connection with a Jan. 7, 2012, car accident that killed passengers Rebecca Mason, 16, of West Paris and Logan Dam, 19, of Norway. Both sides have appealed the partial suppression of statements Lowe made when she was interviewed prior to surgery. The prosecutor has contended that the court erred in finding that Lowe was in custody when she was interviewed by a police officer at a hospital. Lowe’s defense attorney has argued that the judge was wrong in finding that her statements were made voluntarily, given her injuries and the medications she had been given in the hospital.

The court will wrap up four days of oral arguments with a public hearing on a proposed rule change that would increase from 48 to 72 hours the time a defendant may be held in jail before appearing before a judge.

The 72-hour time period would not include weekends or holidays.

The change was proposed in response to complaints from at least one sheriff that he was having to release defendants after 48 hours because a judge was not available, according to a previously published report.

The Maine Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers has opposed the change.

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