One of the most important duties of this and other newspapers is to keep readers informed of the goings on in the criminal justice system of their communities. That includes reporting the arrests, trials and appeals of defendants who have been charged with a crime.
Doing so not only keeps a public watch on the criminal justice system, but this reporting also helps to see that defendants receive fair and equal treatment under the law. It’s not about being nosey, although our First Amendment rights certainly allow us to stick our noses in these matters. Instead, it’s about holding all parties involved in criminal cases responsible.
That’s why this paper has requested to see the Jonesborough Public Safety in-car video from a pursuit and crash involving former District Attorney General Joe Crumely. The town’s attorney emailed us a response stating the video and police report of the pursuit was being withheld as part of an ongoing investigation into the incident.
The town continued to refuse to release the in-car video even after Crumley turned himself in Sept. 30, more than a week after he was involved in a pursuit by Jonesborough officers. The former prosecutor has been charged with reckless driving, evading arrest, reckless endangerment and failure to yield.
Transparency is essential for maintaining trust in the judicial process. That’s why every Tennessean has a right to request information under the state’s Open Records law. This law, passed in 1957, gives all citizens (and not just those in the news business) the right to request public documents ranging from police reports to property transfers.
But as our request to see the in-car camera video from the Crumley pursuit demonstrates, obtaining these records is not always as easy as it should be. A statewide audit conducted by the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government in 2004 found volunteers were denied access to one-third of the public documents requested.
It takes vigilance on the part of representatives of the news media and alert citizens to make sure records that should be open to the public remain open to the public.
And as we’ve said in this space before, secrecy breeds suspicion of public servants and calls into question the true motives of those charged with carrying out the public’s business.
Crumley has been booked in this case, so by their own reasoning, Jonesborough authorities no longer have a reason to withhold the Crumley video from public inspection.