Evidence in Louisville criminal cases will no longer be available for public scrutiny, according to a new rule approved by Kentucky Chief Justice John Minton.
Prosecutors in the Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office were previously required to put evidence in a file that can be accessed by the public, unless a judge sealed the documents.
The change — approved last week — was requested by Jefferson County prosecutors and public defenders, who say technological advances like social media and police body cameras have made it harder to protect victims’ private information and ensure defendants get a fair trial.
“The existence of body cameras is generating lots of disks of material that were getting put in the files,”” said Jeff Cooke, an assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Jefferson County.
“Social media and the internet has been raising issues about statements and material getting into the public forum prior to trial.”
Prosecutors will still be required to provide defense attorneys with evidence.
Cooke said prosecutors, public defenders and the circuit court clerk started discussing the changes in 2013.
Chief Justice Minton signed off on the change on Feb. 8. The move comes more than two months after Louisville Fox affiliate WDRB asked a judge to compel prosecutors to publicly file evidence in the murder of a 7-year-old boy shot last spring.
Jon Fleischaker, a Louisville attorney specializing in First Amendment issues and who has also represented Louisville Public Media, said that the public file is an important way to scrutinize police, prosecutors and attorneys representing defendants.
“We’ve always had news media here which looks at and uses it, especially in highly publicized cases,” Fleischaker said. “It’s important for the citizens to know what’s going on and this is going to make that information much less accessible.”
Without the public file, citizens will have to rely on evidence presented during a trial or make an open records request once court proceedings are completed to get information about cases.
Fleischaker said public scrutiny of the files — and related news reports — can trigger other citizens to provide more information.
“That will deprive people of the ability to say ‘gee, I know something about that, maybe I’ll go tell defense counsel or maybe I’ll say something to the prosecutor,” Fleischaker said.
Jefferson County was only one of a few circuit court districts that require prosecutors to publicly disclose evidence unless sealed by a judge.