Inmate on death row wins access to court documents

GavelDeath row inmate, LaTwon Weaver won his court case against the San Diego County Districts Attorney’s office to gain access to numerous court documents. Weaver had petitioned the state for access to the filing records associated with every murder suspect in the county from the years 1977 to 1993. He also wanted access to any court records that could indicate that the District Attorney’s office in San Diego County was selective about which suspects were charged with a capital crime.

Weaver’s Request for Access

Weaver was convicted in 1992 in the robbery of a jewelry store in Vista, California where he shot and killed the owner of the store, Michael Broome. Weaver waived his right to a jury trial and was found guilty of first degree murder and armed robbery by a judge who later sentenced him to death. Shocked at his severe sentencing, Weaver has been trying to appeal this decision ever since.

Weaver tried to appeal his conviction in 2012 by stating he did not understand his right to a jury trial, or how his decision to waive this right would affect his case. Ultimately, the Supreme Court of California denied his request for appeal and upheld his earlier conviction and sentencing. It was after this court decision that Weaver requested the documents from the District Attorney’s office.

District Attorney’s Office Denied Request

The District Attorney of San Diego County denied Weaver’s request stating that the documents he wanted were exempt from disclosure because they were investigative files. The DA also claimed that the release of these documents would infringe on the privacy of the suspects and victims involved in those other court records. In addition, the DA’s office claimed that it would be too costly to the county taxpayers to collect this information, estimating the collection costs at $3,400.

California Supreme Court’s Decision

After careful review, the panel of judges on California’s State Supreme Court disagreed with the DA’s office and sided with the death row inmate. The court ruled that these documents are not exempt because, with the exclusion of those filed under seal, all of these papers were already filed with the court. The judges also stated that there should be no expectation of privacy when it comes to court documents that were filed involving a murder investigation.

As for the extraordinary costs involved in gathering these documents, the court ruled that guarantee of a fairly administered death penalty process far outweighed the costs that might be involved. In addition, the judges pointed out that nowhere in the law does it exclude government agencies from compliance due to the burden of gathering data.

The DA’s office will now be forced to turn these California public records over to the death row inmate. Weaver plans to use these court documents to see if race played a role in the DA’s decision to try his case as a capital murder case. While Weaver is not denying his guilt, he wants to see if his severe sentencing was due to his race and not necessarily his crime, by comparing his sentence to other murder cases in the county. This case goes to show that even criminals have a right to free access to all public records.