'Chronicle' to take legal action for tapes of 911 calls

The city of Augusta continues to deny a public records request for recordings of 911 calls despite advice to the contrary from the state Attorney General's Office.

The Augusta Chronicle requested several 911 recordings in July at the height of one of Augusta's bloodiest summers, when eight people were killed in seven incidents. The newspaper is preparing for legal action to resolve the issue.

Its request was denied initially by the Richmond County Sheriff's Office because the cases were "under investigation," then by District Attorney Ashley Wright because she considered them evidence.

Georgia law says materials connected with a pending investigation can be withheld, with the exception of the "initial police arrest reports and initial incident reports."

Attorney David Hudson, the legal counsel for the Georgia Press Association and The Chronicle , argues that 911 recordings are included in that exempted category.

In every other instance of cities and counties resisting requests for 911 tapes, "ultimately they followed the opinion of the attorney general and made them available," Hudson said.

After a request for mediation from Hudson, Assistant Attorney General Calandra Harps reminded the city that the only information that can be withheld is the identity, name and address of the person placing the call.

Even that redaction is only necessary when it's a confidential source or information that could endanger someone's life or physical safety.

"While I am not yet assuming the City has violated the Act, I would ask that you provide a response to the allegations to clarify and to provide further legal support for the City's position," Harps wrote.

Staff attorney Ken Bray reiterated Augusta's position in a responding letter, saying: "The Chronicle is seeking exactly the type of information that is prohibited from disclosure."

Bray continues to say that the information will not be provided until all direct litigation stemming from the calls "has become final or otherwise terminated."

The newspaper argues that 911 tapes are not part of the investigation. In building his case for the attorney general, Hudson noted that Augusta's 911 center is separate from the sheriff's office. Its director, Philip Wasson, is appointed by the city government.

Hudson also noted that the initial call to 911 for help is created by private citizens, not "of law enforcement, prosecution or regulatory agencies."

Also, the 911 call cannot be considered among the interview transcripts, evidence and notes gathered by investigators during their investigation.

"The 911 records precede any investigation," Hudson argues.

There are several precedents in favor of The Chronicle.

In October 2009, 911 tapes were released soon after a man shot and killed his two children in a double murder-suicide in Moultrie, Ga. The conversation between dispatch and a man discovering the mass murder of his family in a Georgia trailer park was released in 2009.

"Even when the Open Records Act was adjusted a few years ago, these public records (remained) open to the public. The legislature recognizes that access to these records and information is useful and beneficial to the community and enables the public to better monitor its government," Hollie Manheimer, the executive director for the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said in an e-mail.

Alan English, the executive editor of The Chronicle , said that selectively withholding 911 tapes erodes public trust and creates suspicion.

He called it a "ridiculous abuse of power."

"It sets a horrible precedent," he added.

Don Bailey, the newspaper's president, said pushing for the release of the tapes is a public service.

"The Chronicle will push through roadblocks to public records for the community's sake," he said. "This remains a priority."

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The Augusta Chronicle also plans to pursue a federal lawsuit to obtain the mug shot of a man sentenced to nine years in prison for stealing $1.7 million from more than a dozen friends and relatives.

Federal officials have denied a current picture of Walter Marion Williams, who is serving time in a Montgomery, Ala., prison, because it "could reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy."

The newspaper contends that publishing Williams' photo could alert other victims who otherwise might be unaware of Williams' identity.