Q&A: When no one would talk, journalism class turned to public records

Student journalists cover myriad topics every day, often in spite ofsteep practical and legal obstacles. This is the first in an occasional seriesof Q&A interviews with student journalists and faculty advisers around thecountry whose exemplary work showcases reporting at its finest and the legaltools available to support such work.

CALIFORNIA — Humboldt State University’s investigative reporting class had hit awall. In January they embarked on an investigation into mental health withinthe Humboldt County Jail by researching the life and death of James Lee Peters,a Native American man who in August committed suicide while in the jail.

After repeated phone calls and endless interview requests, the class wasmet only with silence.

“No one felt they could talk about it,” said Marcy Burstiner,the professor who led the class. “No one was blocking them, but no onewas helping them out.”

Not knowing where else to turn, the class began digging through publicrecords. They filed California Public Record Act requests with Atascadero StateHospital and petitioned the District Attorney to open Peters’ files.

As the class pored over court transcripts, physiological reports andprocedural policies, they began to piece Peters’ life together. In doingso, they shed light on the deteriorating state of mental health services withinthe county jail.

Below are highlights from the SPLC’s interview with Burstiner aboutwhat it took to get the story published.

The article was written primarily as a diary or documentary of the man,James Lee Peters. Why was it written like that?

Burstiner:Part of the problem is we were trying to get a sense of thesystems in which he fell into, but we had a hard time getting people to talk tous about the case. The students were pretty much blocked. Almost everyone whowas involved in this man’s case refused or declined to talk about him, andthe students had to use mostly public records to find out what happened to him.

As you had said, you were having trouble getting different people totalk about the case, how did the class get most of its information?

Burstiner: They ended up getting most of their information from documents. They then tried to interview the public defenders. They tried to interviewpeople in probation and all kinds of people. No one was talking to them aboutthis man. So, then they started reading the records. They went from the courtminutes, we ordered and paid for some court transcripts and then they requested,with a California Public Records Act request, the DA files. It was in the DAfiles that they were able to get almost all of the information about hispersonal history and who he was and what was happening to him.

Now, even though this involved mental health, they were still able toget files from the district attorney?

Burstiner: Yes. This was a really interesting thing because weweren’t sure we would be able to get them. Under the Public Records Act,DA files are pretty much privileged; you don’t have a right to them. Butwe argued that since this man had died there’s no privacy concerns anylonger. Now on the public defense side, they said that attorney-clientprivilege goes beyond death. So, we couldn’t get public defender records.But there is no attorney-client privilege with the DA’s office. The DAhad told us that he couldn’t give us anything without the public recordsrequest, but once we made the records request, he would sit down and see ifthere was anything he could release. The only thing he said was that if therewas any information that was pertinent to ongoing investigations, hewouldn’t release it. He released, I believe, about half of the informationin the files. The students sat down in his office, two students, and wentthrough his files with him.

As these students were requesting these records and looking fordifferent outlets to get information, was it generally easy to get informationor was it more of a fight and a battle to get different documents out?

Burstiner: Once we made the records request, I was actually very surprisedat how smooth the process was. The students found an awful lot of people whowanted them to do the story, but no one felt that they could talk about it. When they filed the records, it was almost as if the people within the systemsaid, “Oh, now we have this obligation to turn over this material, and weactually want the material out. We want this story to be told.”

After overseeing this report, is there anything you wish you would haveknown before you had started? Do you have any advice you would give to studentjournalists conducting similar investigations using public records?

Burstiner: Don’t wait too long on anything. We didn’t requestdocuments and data from the jail itself until too late and we got those at thevery, very end. It produced some very interesting statistics on the high number ofNative Americans in our jail, which we weren’t able to explore because itwas too late.

So, the lesson learned is: Request anything you can possibly thinkof?

Burstiner: The second you think of it, request it. Because we were justfloored at how once we requested the information we got it. It’s justsometimes we waited too long. We either thought that we didn’t have torequest it or we thought we wouldn’t get it. Don’t even let thosethoughts cross your mind.