School committee violated open meeting law

The Danvers School Committee violated the Open Meeting Law this spring when four members agreed to add their names to a memo addressed to the fifth member, District Attorney Jonathan Blodgett told the Danvers Herald in response to the newspaper’s inquiry. “The district attorney found reason to believe that four members met, albeit by phone or in some other non-physical way,” the newspaper said in a report published Aug. 11.

Legislative committee takes up open meetings bills

The legislature’s Joint Committee on State Administration and Regulatory Oversight heard testimony today on six bills filed by the MNPA to toughen the enforcement provisions of the state’s open meetings laws.

The committee, chaired by Sen. Dianne Wilkerson (D-Boston) and Rep. Antonio F.D. Cabral (D-New Bedford), heard testimony by MNPA Executive Director Robert J. Ambrogi and MNPA Legal Counsel Peter J. Caruso.

Several members of the committee expressed support for the bills. Rep. Cabral said his position on open meeting law reform may be even stricter — he would like to see elimination of some of the statutory exceptions. Rep. Michael E. Festa (D-Melrose), House vice chair of the committee, said that as a former school committee member in Melrose, he had seen officials skirt the law. “I think the legislation makes perfect sense,” he said. Rep. Marie J. Parente (D-Milford), said that she supports these bills because the open meeting law cannot be effective if there are no penalties for its violation.

The six bills — H. 3517, H. 3518, H. 3519, H.3619, H. 3620 and H. 3621 — would amend the open meeting laws to:

  • – Make it a misdemeanor for an official to knowingly and intentionally violate the law, punishable by a fine of not more than $1,000 for a first offense and not more than $2,500 for subsequent offenses.
  • – Authorize courts to impose a $500 civil fine against officials who attend meetings in violation of the law.
  • – Authorize courts to award attorneys’ fees and costs in actions to enforce the law.
  • – Authorize courts to impose a $1,000 civil fine against state bodies that violate the law, in the same way that the law now authorizes fines against local bodies.

The committee is not expected to act on the bills until September.

Greenfield judge OKs photos in court

[The following is reprinted with permission from today’s Recorder.]

By GEORGE W. CLAXTON
Recorder Staff

GREENFIELD – News photographers were allowed to photograph the Deerfield Sunoco strangling suspect Thursday after a Superior Court judge ruled the press has a clear constitutional right to be present during routine court proceedings.

Defense lawyers must have truly compelling and specific reasons to demand that reporters and photographers be kept out of court, said Superior Court Justice Bertha Josephson in a ruling from the bench. And in this case, the defense arguments for keeping cameras out of the courtroom weren’t compelling enough, the judge ruled.

Nevertheless, as it turned out, the defendant, Dennis M. Bateman, managed to keep his face obscured from newspaper and television cameramen, whose vantage point and movement in the courtroom was restricted by the judge so as to not disrupt the proceedings.

Bateman stood stolidly with his back to the cameras that were located in the center aisle of the public gallery and, when sitting, hung his head low and covered his face with his left hand so that little could be seen beyond his shaven head and the circlet of the handcuff on his wrist.

“Of course the news media is allowed to be present and of course cameras are allowed to be present,” said Josephson. According to the judge, state Supreme Judicial Court rules say unconditionally that judges “shall permit broadcasting, televising, electronic recording or taking photographs of proceedings open to the public in the courtroom … for news gathering purposes and dissemination of information to the public.”

“The First Amendment guarantees the press the right to be present during public trials.

“The media’s right of access is derived from the public’s right to access, neither more nor less. The media is entitled to be present,” she said.

The question of press rights to take photographs in the courtroom was raised at Bateman’s arraignment, which was for larceny – not murder. Prosecutors have not charged Bateman with murder.

Bateman, 40, whose last known address was 38 Silver St., was held on $10,000 cash bail Thursday on charges of misdemeanor larceny and being a common and notorious thief, although he was also named by Deputy First Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Dunphy-Farris as a “person of interest” in the slaying April 16 of a pregnant gas station attendant in Old Deerfield.

Defense attorney Byron Caplice argued Thursday that the press has no interest in the larceny charge against Bateman and are focused on the matter only because he is a suspect in the strangulation murder of a pregnant woman.

“According to an article in the Greenfield Recorder, on May 5, 2005, vehicles belonging to his family were vandalized and graffitied overnight, with the words ‘Baby Killer’ painted on one, an obvious reference to the pregnant murder victim,” he said.

Caplice also argued that, should Bateman be released on bail, his life might be endangered by people with a vigilante mind-set who might think him guilty of the murder by virtue of being accused.

David Angier, who represented The Recorder, the Associated Press and the Daily Hampshire Gazette in the constitutional battle in Thursday’s hearing, argued that the presumption, in Massachusetts law, is that the court will be open to the press, both the newspapers and electronic reporting. He said that Caplice had not put forward any specific reasons for not photographing Bateman and had only cited “possible” and “potential” dangers if the man’s face was shown.

“The defendant has the burden of proving specific prejudice,” he said, adding that one exception to the general rule of access would be to show a “substantial likelihood of harm.”

According to Angier, the only case in which the shielding of participants was allowed by the SJC was in the Big Dan’s rape case in Fall River in which the victim submitted a lengthy affidavit that demonstrated specific problems “sufficient to permit the judge to find a substantial likelihood of harm.”

Angier said that any argument that Bateman might be prejudged by having his photograph in the newspaper can be dealt with at trial by cross-examination.

Once the judge ruled in favor of the press on the constitutional issue, she called for the arraignment of Bateman on the Superior Court indictment. Bateman was then brought into the courtroom, but The Recorder photographer and a television cameraman were ordered not to take pictures until the court was in session. By then the suspect was settled at the defense table, with his back to the gallery.

Dunphy-Farris requested that Bateman’s bail be increased to $50,000 based on his extensive record, his history of escape and the fact that he was planning to move out of the area just before he was arrested.

Caplice argued that, although Bateman has failed to show up for court before, that is not the same as running away.

“He has never left the commonwealth,” the defense lawyer said.

Caplice said that Bateman came under suspicion early in the investigation and cooperated with the police by providing fingerprints, DNA, shoe prints and other evidence that they requested. He also said that the arrest for the larceny was merely pretext to hold Bateman while the district attorney tries to find evidence to charge him with the slaying. He likened Bateman to people being held without charge as terror suspects in Afghanistan and Cuba.

“They don’t have enough to charge Mr. Bateman for the murder,” he said.

Previously, Bateman’s wife said that he was at the Deerfield Sunoco station on the day of the murder and knew the victim.

According to the defense attorney, Bateman’s failure to pay for the $4.46
pint of bourbon that triggered the larceny charge was a mistake that he rectified a few days after the shoplifting.

Dunphy-Farris said that Bateman only went back to pay for the purloined liquor because he knew that police were on to him and were investigating the theft.

“That could be seen as intimidation of a witness,” she said.

“What she calls intimidation of a witness, I call making restitution,” Caplice said hotly.

The defense lawyer also argued that, if the crime was properly charged, it would be called shoplifting and not larceny and, in that case, the felony charge of common and notorious thief could not be brought.

Bateman has been charged as a common and notorious thief on the grounds he has been convicted in the past of 12 counts of breaking and entering in the night in order to commit a larceny, nine counts of felony larceny, five counts of receiving stolen property, three counts of possession of burglar’s tools, carrying a dangerous weapon and escape from custody. He also has seven defaults on his record for failure to show up for court as required, including two such defaults in the last nine months.

If Bateman is found guilty of being a notorious thief, he could be imprisoned for up to 20 years.

Bateman has been ordered to return to court in June for a pretrial hearing on the theft-related charges.

You can reach George Claxton at: gclaxton@recorder.com or (413) 772-0261
Ext. 279

Federal judge imposes gag order on reporter

A federal judge in Massachusetts last week imposed a gag order against The Standard-Times in New Bedford, barring it from publishing what reporter Ray Henry heard on March 31 at a court hearing on a motion by an accused drug trafficker.

The gag order expired this morning when federal prosecutors failed to file an appeal.

During the March 31 hearing before U.S. District Judge Robert E. Keeton, federal prosecutors disclosed what the court determined was privileged information without first determining who was in the courtroom. The session was not closed to the public and the reporter and others were permitted by a U.S. marshal to enter.

The gag order was set to expire at 11 a.m. today, unless prosecutors or defense lawyers asked the Court of Appeals to intervene. The newspaper called the gag order prior restraint of its First Amendment rights.

See the Standard-Times report: S-T challenges gag order in drug case.

Bills seek overhaul of state law

Six Bills Seek Overhaul of State Law
By DAN RING and BUFFY SPENCER
The Republican / March 18, 2005

“BOSTON – State and municipal officials would face fines if they intentionally violate the state’s Open Meeting Law, according to legislation pending on Beacon Hill.

“Opponents said the legislation would discourage people from serving in government and would clog the courts with more lawsuits. Supporters said the bills are needed to toughen enforcement of the law.

“Six bills to overhaul the law were filed by Rep. Arthur J. Broadhurst, D-Methuen, at the request of the Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association.”

Read more.

The Republican: Focusing on the public’s right to know

Focusing on the public’s right to know
By Larry McDermott / The Republican
March 13, 2005

“The Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association has filed legislation that would toughen the penalties for violators and award court costs and lawyer’s fees to individuals who bring successful enforcement actions. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Arthur Broadhurst, D-Methuen.

“This same newspaper publishers organization fought for and won in 1990 limited access to some criminals’ records under the Criminal Offender Record Information Act, known as CORI. Since then, the public has been informed – by the press – countless times of information that it might never have received otherwise. You need look no further back in time than this past week for an example.”

MetroWest Daily News: Publishers Propose Legislation

Publishers propose legislation
By Theresa Edo / MetroWest Daily News
Sunday, March 13, 2005

“The Massachusetts Newspaper Publishers Association hopes two proposed amendments will help make officials think twice about willfully violating — or simply not knowing — the ins and outs of the state’s Open Meeting Law.

“The association in December submitted two draft amendments to state Rep. Arthur Broadhurst, D-Methuen, in hopes that the Legislature might take up the discussion to add teeth to the law.”

Worcester Telegram: Making government more ‘open’

“Changes proposed to toughen the penalties for violating the state‚Äôs Open Meeting Law could leave public officials facing stiff fines,” Worcester Telegram & Gazette reporter Gerard F. Russell writes about the MNPA’s bills. “Proponents say the changes would put teeth into the Open Meeting Law. Critics say the legislation would chill the desire of citizens to seek elective office or, for that matter, volunteer on government boards and commissions.”

Read full text (subscription required).

Cape Cod Times wins access to sheriff’s records

The Supreme Judicial Court yesterday ruled that Barnstable County Sheriff James Cummings must provide to the Cape Cod Times the identities of his reserve deputy sheriffs, whose names he has concealed for two years.

The SJC said that the names are public records under G.L. c. 66, s. 10, and must be made available for examination and inspection.

The sheriff had contended that the records were private because the reserve deputies have no law enforcement duties and also that the records belonged to the private Barnstable County Sheriffs Association.