Secrets legitimate and not, defined by records law

  • By Scott North
  • Friday, June 3, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

This is a story about two Snohomish County secrets. A judge said one should be revealed. Justice demanded another be kept quiet, for years.

Since it was approved by Washington’s voters in 1972, the state’s public records law has

been billed as a tool to keep government accountable. Most often it’s seen as an instrument for wresting documents and data from government agencies.

But the records law also functions as a secrecy act, according to Everett assistant city attorney Ramsey Ramerman. He’s the city’s expert on access and a member of the state’s public records “Sunshine Committee.” The records law describes information exempt from disclosure, or secrets, Ramerman told an open government conference earlier this year. At least 300 such exemptions already are on the books. The exemptions aim to protect privacy, public resources and the integrity of police investigations. When they are applied in accordance with the law, they provide predictable access to information that belongs in the open, he notes.

Last month brought two good local examples of the state’s records law in action.On May 9, The Herald learned at a court hearing that inmate Byron Scherf had sent a letter to Snohomish County prosecutors. Attached was a motion Scherf wanted heard in his death penalty case. He was upset that his defense lawyers had engaged in what he called a “renegade action.” They want to bar prosecutors from seeking the repeat rapist’s death if he is convicted of killing Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl.

Scherf’s lawyers didn’t want the motion made public. When The Herald filed a records request with prosecutors, the defense sought a court order barring the document’s release. They maintained it wasn’t a public record and offered a complex rationale, based in part on their contention that prosecutors were ethically barred from opening any mail Scherf sent them.

Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Thomas Wynne simplified matters when the issue came before him . The Scherf correspondence was in the custody of prosecutors working for a public agency and thus a public record, he ruled. There was no specific state exemption blocking release, the judge said, and he wasn’t inclined to create one from the bench. Scherf’s lawyers tried to get the state Supreme Court to see things their way, but were turned down flat. We wrote a story after being provided the records.

We published another story in a separate case on May 19. That was the day the county’s cold-case detectives announced a break in their nearly 16-year-long investigations into the deaths of Patti Berry and Tracey Brazzel.

It turns out the cops since 2004 have been using DNA tests to home in on a suspect. For nearly three years they reportedly have had evidence linking Danny R. Giles, a convicted sex offender now in prison. He’s not charged, but that may be in the works.

The detectives kept their secret close. They had the public records law on their side, too. Exactly as it should be.

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