By Corey Friedman
Clerk of Superior Court Andrew Whitley stepped in before “secret exhibit” became Wilson County’s unfortunate contribution to the English language’s long list of oxymorons.
Whitley agreed on Friday to release paper exhibits in the case of Charles Ray Finch, who claims he was wrongfully convicted of murder in the 1976 killing of Richard Holloman near Black Creek.
The clerk’s office initially declined to allow a Wilson Times reporter to review exhibits entered into evidence in the Finch case. After consulting with Special Deputy Attorney General Grady Balentine, Whitley reversed course and pledged to make these important public records available to Wilson County residents.
“The Clerk of Superior Court is the official keeper of all court records, and all of ‘our’ records are accessible to the public,” Whitley wrote in a Friday response to the Times’ public records request.
Whitley typed “our” in quotation marks, correctly and admirably noting that, while the records may be in his custody for safekeeping, they are the public’s property.
As the word itself suggests, exhibits introduced into evidence in open court are, of course, public records. Black’s Law Dictionary defines the verb form thus: “To show or display; to offer or present for inspection.” Not much room for secrecy there.
N.C. General Statute 7A-109(a) states, “Each clerk shall maintain such records, files, dockets and indexes as prescribed by the rules of the director of the Administrative Office of the Courts. Except as prohibited by law, these records shall be open to the inspection of the public during regular office hours.”
The clerk’s office said it initially couldn’t determine whether the Finch exhibits should be considered public records. Whitley noted in his letter to the Times that the question is “an evolving area within the law.”
We don’t fault officials for a careful parsing of the law and a commitment to follow it to the letter. However, records of official court proceedings should be presumed public unless there’s a specific statutory exemption or unless a judge has ordered the files sealed.
Recordkeepers’ initial reluctance gave us pause. But we’re greatly encouraged by the laudable commitment to openness and transparency that Whitley made on Friday.
“I assure the citizens of Wilson County that the clerk’s office is committed to maintaining the public trust,” Whitley wrote.
Seeking advice from the N.C. Department of Justice was a wise move. Attorney General Roy Cooper created an open government unit for the sole purpose of resolving thorny legal questions and disputes between residents and officials over public records and open meetings.
Before responding to the Times’ records request, Whitley did his homework. He reviewed the U.S. Constitution, state statutes and legal precedents relating to public availability of court exhibits. We are grateful for Whitley’s diligence and his due consideration of these important questions.
The issue at hand is much larger than whether this newspaper can copy records introduced during Finch’s hearing. What’s at stake is the public’s ability to review and consider the evidence presented in criminal trials.
Not everyone can be in attendance during an important hearing — there aren’t enough seats in the courtroom, for starters, and many with an interest in the case have work and family commitments that prevent them from showing up.
Our county courthouse holds the evidence, exhibits and record of events for safekeeping. It does not own the records. They are the public’s collective property, and residents have the right to view and copy them.
Wilson County is fortunate to have a clerk of superior court who’s made a public commitment to openness and accountability.
[Note: This editorial was originally published in The Wilson Times.]
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