Public-records laws can open up a world of discoveries, rewardingpersistent journalists like those in Marcy Burstiner’s reporting class atCalifornia’s Humboldt State University.
As a class project, Burstiner’s students took on the case of25-year-old James Lee Peters, who hanged himself in the Humboldt County Jailwhile awaiting a long-delayed transfer to a state mental health facility. Thestudents found that Peters’ predicament was frustratingly common.
The judge and prosecutor in Peters’ case bemoaned the lack ofadequate mental health programs — yet no one wanted to talk on the record.So Burstiner’s students turned to the California Public Records Act: forpolice reports, for jail logs, and — most revealingly — for theclosed investigative file of the district attorney’s review ofPeters’ death.
These documents spoke for Peters, vividly, and they told an important storythat exemplifies the best of student journalism.
The work of these Humboldt students, and Burstiner’s tips on usingopen records laws, are available here. SPLC willbe highlighting other such creative uses of legal tools to gather stories thatmake a difference. We invite your submissions. Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.