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Special Report: Maine FOAA

By Bret Silverberg

Four years ago, Margaret Miles’ son murdered two registered sex offenders in Maine and then killed himself. Ever since, Miles has been grappling to understand why her son acted as he did, but her attempts to seek closure have been stymied by Maine officials who have denied her access to information on her son’s laptop computer.

Their reason, which has been upheld by a court: Two exemptions to the state’s Freedom of Access Act. Finally, however, Miles will soon get some of the information she has long sought.

For Miles, of North Sydney, Nova Scotia, the main impediment has been a list of 29 names and addresses of registered Maine sex offenders that Stephen Marshall, Miles’ son, kept on a computer found in his possession on April 16, 2006, the date of the crimes.

In September 2009, Miles went to court seeking to overturn a decision by William R. Stokes, the state’s deputy attorney general, to keep this list confidential. On Feb. 21, 2010, a judge in Penobscot Superior Court upheld the state’s decision. Miles did not appeal.

The state has argued that to release the list might provoke a copycat killer, forcing the state to provide protection for the 29 offenders – even though all the state’s sex offenders are listed on the same public website where Marshall found his two victims – (http://sor.informe.org/cgi-bin/sor/step1.pl?submitx=New+Search)

While the murders and Marshall’s suicide were widely reported, his mother’s battle with the state for access to her son’s laptop’s information has received no press attention.

Sigmund D. Schutz, a Maine First Amendment lawyer, disagrees with the court order to seal the list, saying the state police and courts have been heavy-handed in their interpretations of the FOAA exemptions.

“There should have to be some evidentiary basis that these people [on the list] are put in greater danger…than their being identified to the world on the Internet,” he said in an interview. “If someone is inclined to murder sex offenders they can do that by looking at the registry.”

Yet the state police, and an appeals court, have cited two state FOAA exemptions—one that says a release would cause an “unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” and another that says a release could “endanger the life or physical safety of any individual,” according to the Maine State Legislature’s Office of the Revisor of Statutes.

Stokes, who handed down the initial decision to keep the list under wraps, argues that if the information is released, the state would take on the burden of protecting the people on the list.

“What are we going to warn them about, that there’s some dead guy who made a list and now some kook may come after them?” he told NEFAC in an interview. “I think we would be more under obligation [to protect the people named] if we had been forced to release this list.”

Miles is not necessarily interested in getting the list of names, she said in an interview. What she wants is the “complete picture” of her son’s deadly rampage in 2006; the only way she feels she can get this closure is by gaining access to the laptop with any information that her son may have stored there.

“To me the laptop computer is like a notebook that he put notes in,” she said. “This is as close to a suicide note as I’m going to get.”

Despite deletion of information from the hard drive, there is no assurance an expert could not still retrieve the information ordered confidential. So the state has hung on to the computer. To get the contents of the computer to Miles without accidentally releasing the confidential information, the state has assessed the labor cost of redaction at $1,200, according to a letter sent to Peter Bos,  Miles’ lawyer, by Maine State Police Atty. Christopher Parr. Miles must pay this fee Miles if she wants the information.

Bos and Miles are undecided on how to proceed as of this writing, but Miles is not happy with the proposed resolution.

“That to me is absolutely scandalous,” she said.

Miles is especially unsatisfied with this method of retrieval because she feels she has no way of knowing if she is getting the information in its entirety, she said.

The Canadian Press, the Associated Press, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp., and Toro Magazine filed FOAA requests to Maine State Police seeking the list of names and other case information following the completion of the state’s investigation Aug. 1, 2010. Parr denied all.

Yet it was only Miles who took the case to court, without public notice.

For now, Miles and Bos work over their options and are in a state of flux on how to proceed. If Miles decides to absorb the cost, it would still take several weeks for the state to get her the information. At some point, the laptop will be returned to Miles with presumably a formatted or brand new hard drive, according to Bos.

Still, Miles continues to wait in the dark.

“I know next to nothing,” she said. “It’s so frustrating.”

Bret Silverberg, who will receive his graduate degree in journalism from Northeastern University on September 2, 2010 prepared this report for the New England First Amendment Center at Northeastern University.

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