Tuesday, February 12, 2019
11th Circuit Affirms Lower Court Order Unsealing Grand Jury Transcripts In Moore's Ford Lynching Case
The 11th Circuit has affirmed a lower court ruling unsealing the grand jury transcripts in the Moore's Ford lynching case. A mob murdered two African-American couples at Moore's Ford, Walton County, Georgia, 1946.
In 2017, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was close to shutting down its 17-year investigation without making arrests, although it opened its files on the case to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Historian Anthony Pitch, the author of a book about the murders (The Last Lynching, 2016), also renewed his request that the grand jury transcripts be unsealed. The district court so ordered and the government appealed. In its ruling the appellate court examined the government's claim of abuse of discretion by the lower court, and said,
Historical importance is objective. It must be distinguished from “journalistic intrigue, public curiosity, or even a subjective importance to family and friends.” Craig, 131 F.3d at 105 n.8. The Moore’s Ford Lynching is clearly an event of exceptional historical significance. Compared to the journalist or the family member of a victim that seeks access to the details of a salacious unsolved crime, the Moore’s Ford Lynching is historically significant because it is closely tied to the national civil rights movement. Many consider it to be the last mass lynching in American history. There has been, and continues to be, national media attention and widespread public interest in the murders. According to Pitch, the Moore’s Ford Lynching is credited as a catalyst to the President’s Committee on Civil Rights, which President Harry Truman created by executive order the same week the Moore’s Ford grand jury was convened. See Exec. Order No. 9808, 11 Fed. Reg. 14153 (Dec. 5, 1946). It would be difficult to deny—and the government does not attempt to do so on appeal—that the Moore’s Ford Lynching is, objectively, an exceptionally significant event in American history. Despite considerable public interest, the details are sparse. Even with a crowd of witnesses, no one was prosecuted and no public proceedings were held. For this reason, Pitch sought disclosure of the entire transcript from the grand jury proceedings. As the district court did here, courts should give any party opposing disclosure the opportunity to object to specific portions of the records. The district court should engage in the same balancing test to determine whether, and how much, those portions should be redacted or omitted. See Douglas Oil, 441 U.S. at 223, 99 S. Ct. at 1675 (“And if disclosure is ordered, the court may include protective limitations on the use of the disclosed material . . . .”); Hastings, 735 F.2d at 1274–75 (approving the district court’s “protective conditions”). The interest in continued secrecy is also undercut if details in the records have been publicized. See Craig, 131 F.3d at 107; cf. In re North, 16 F.3d 1234, 1244–45 (D.C. Cir. 1994) (noting that widespread media release might undercut interest in secrecy to point where Rule 6(e) would not prohibit disclosure).
The court determined that this event continues to be of historic importance to the public because of its ties to the civil rights movement and that public interest in the movement continues. In combination with other factors, including the lengthy passage of time since the event, the importance of the event outweighed the government's interest in keeping the materials sealed.
Link to the ruling here.