PORTLAND, Maine — The Maine Supreme Judicial court Thursday ordered that the transcripts of the 911 calls related to a double homicide last year in Biddeford be made public.
In a unanimous decision, the state’s high court reversed a lower court ruling that said the release of the transcripts “could hypothetically influence the input of potential witnesses” at a trial.
Justices heard oral arguments in the appeal of MaineToday Media Inc., Sept. 9 in Portland. The lawsuit stemmed from the shooting deaths of two people and the wounding of a third on Dec. 29, 2012, in York County.
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.
“Given the broad purpose of [the Freedom of Access Act] and the narrow reach of its exceptions, and mindful of the presumptive right of public access to criminal court proceedings, we conclude that the state failed to meet its burden of establishing the reasonable possibility that disclosure of the Pak  transcripts would interfere with law enforcement proceedings,” Justice Ellen Gorman wrote in the 21-page decision.
“This is an important win for the public’s right to know how Maine’s emergency communication system operates and paves the way for greater public access to information in ongoing criminal proceedings,” MaineToday Media’s Portland attorney Sigmund D. Schutz said Thursday in response to a request for comment.
“The court rejected a longstanding ‘blanket rule’ maintained by the Office of the Attorney General that all 911 information in connection with ongoing homicide proceedings is confidential,” he said. “The attorney general can only justify confidentiality by a ‘particularized approach’ based on the content and circumstances of each individual record.”
Attorney General Janet Mills said late Thursday that her office welcomed the court’s decision but wanted the public to not be afraid that their calls for emergency assistance would be made public.
“These kinds of FOAA cases put us in the somewhat unusual position of having to defend the defendant before he’s been tried,” she said. “We were hoping for a broader decision. This decision does not impact our case.
“I don’t want the public to think that all 911 calls will be made public,” she said. “This only happens in criminal prosecutions of an egregious nature in which there is a high public interest. People should still feel free to call 911.”
Deputy Attorney General William Stokes argued in a brief filed prior to oral arguments that the lower court’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.”
The supreme court remanded the matter to Superior Court Justice Roland Cole, who issued the original ruling, with instructions to require the state to disclose the transcripts associated with the Pak case.
A “friend of the court brief” was 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.
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.
He is being held without bail. If convicted, he faces between 25 years and life in prison.