After murders raise questions about parole supervision, LA Times sues for records

Paper invokes Jaycee Dugard precedent to argue for access to parole documents

Registered sex offenders Franc Cano, 27, and Steven Dean Gordon, 45, are accused of raping and murdering four women in the fall of 2013—while being tracked by GPS devices they were required to wear as a condition of their federal probation and state parole. The crime has raised new questions about the effectiveness of California’s parole supervision. And now the Los Angeles Times, seeking answers to those questions, is accusing the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation of unlawfully withholding the offenders’ parole records.

The men were arrested April 11 in California, where they were on parole at the time they allegedly killed the women. The tracking devices helped the police link Cano and Gordon to the crimes, but the mother of one victim, found on a conveyor belt at a trash plant, told the AP that the system had failed. “It makes me furious,” Jodi Pier-Estepp said. “If California was doing their job, my daughter would still be alive and so would those other girls.”

The AP discovered in May that Cano and Gordon twice before had escaped parole supervision: in 2010, when Cano cut off his GPS device and traveled to Alabama, to be arrested later with Gordon; and in 2012, when the men cut off their GPS devices and traveled to Las Vegas using assumed names, to be arrested later while staying at the Circus Circus Hotel & Casino. They were placed on federal probation after their Las Vegas trip.

The whole affair demands further scrutiny of the state parole system, and that’s where the Times comes in. In a complaint filed last week, first reported by Courthouse News, the paper chronicled its efforts to obtain Cano’s and Gordon’s parole records—and asked a Sacramento court to order the corrections department to release them. At the heart of the paper’s case is Jaycee Dugard, kidnapped in 1991 when she was 11 years old, and held hostage for 18 years.

The public interest in disclosure

Times reporter Paige St. John, who received the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, requested in April the corrections department’s “complete record of supervision” for Cano and Gordon, according to the complaint. The department refused to release any records, citing various provisions of the state constitution, public records act, and evidence code that allow nondisclosure in limited circumstances. St. John pressed for certain parole revocation files, and the department sort of obliged, releasing summary pages from a parole hearing in 2010—but withholding all other records.

At that point, according to the exhibits attached to the Times’ complaint, the paper’s legal counsel intervened to negotiate with the department’s assistant chief counsel, Dennis Beaty, who largely held the line. He said he would release general policies regarding the frequency of parolee contacts, but he refused to release the names of the parole officers who supervised Cano and Gordon until 30 days after giving the officers notice. Beaty also said he would consider releasing the officers’ caseloads. He went another round with the Times legal counsel, and ultimately the two went their separate ways. No other records were released.

The complaint picks up there, and seeks access to “records that will shed light on the performance of the California Department of Corrections … in supervising” Cano and Gordon. It argues that this “is not the first time [the department] has resisted disclosure of records that would shed light on shortcomings in its supervision of parolees.”

Enter: Jaycee Dugard.

After her kidnapper, paroled felon Phillip Garrido, was arrested in 2009, two newspapers sued the department for his parole records—and won, in the very court where the Times has filed suit. In the earlier case, the judge ordered the release of more than 100 pages of Garrido’s parole records, generally of the same type that St. John requested for Cano and Gordon.

Karl Olson, the trial attorney representing the Times, told CJR, “In our view, there is no reason the outcome here should be any different than in the Garrido/Dugard case.”

Indeed, it’s not difficult to see the public interest in disclosure: In the aftermath of the Dugard case, the department admitted it had failed to supervise Garrido effectively and promised to do better in the future. Now the department is faced with four dead women allegedly killed by parolees wearing GPS devices. The records at issue likely would educate the public on whether the supervision process still needs improvement.

As the complaint puts it: “The public … has an overriding interest in access to records on this closely watched and very disturbing case, and an overriding interest in seeing whether [the department] is doing its job.”

Transparency and accountability

With four people dead and two parolees charged with their murder, it might seem a foregone conclusion that California’s supervision process needs improvement. But for now it’s better to question than conclude, because we just don’t know enough—chiefly because the department hasn’t been forthcoming with records. And that’s unlikely to change, at least for now.

Jeffrey Callison, the corrections department spokesman, told CJR, “This is an ongoing murder investigation, and so we are not sharing some information at this time so as not to jeopardize the case.”

The department made similar comments in its official responses to the Times’ record requests. In my assessment, though, the department’s exemption claims so far have been unpersuasive. The stated bases—that releasing the records would endanger the case against Cano and Gordon, and compromise the parole officers’ safety—ignore too much case law.

The Times complaint ‚Äčalleges that the department has offered no evidence to support its claims, and no less than the California Supreme Court has underscored the importance of transparency and accountability in the law enforcement context. 

First, the court has said that the “public’s legitimate interest in the identity and activities of peace officers is even greater than its interest in those of the average public servant.” Second, the court has said that “the public’s substantial interest in the conduct of its peace officers outweighs, in most cases, the officer’s personal privacy interest.” Third, the court has said that in assessing risks and correctional interests implicated by disclosure‚Äč, an agency may not rely on “speculative concerns.”

If the Times and the state don’t reach a settlement, the corrections department will have an opportunity to make its own case in court, of course. But by my reading, based on what we know, those principles would lift the veil of secrecy here, and extend to the names of the parole officers charged with supervising Cano and Gordon. Whatever course this takes, let’s hope we get more transparency—and some answers to those questions about parole supervision in California.

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Jonathan Peters is CJR's press freedom correspondent. An attorney, he is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Kansas, where he teaches and researches media law and policy, with an affiliate research position exploring big data and Internet governance in the KU Information & Telecommunication Technology Center. Peters has blogged on free expression for the Harvard Law & Policy Review, and he has written for Esquire, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Slate, The Nation, Wired, and PBS. Follow him on Twitter @jonathanwpeters. Tags: , , ,