Court rules on 911 in ex-Rutlander’s murder case
By SCOTT DOLAN and ERIC RUSSELL Portland Press Herald | November 15,2013
In this undated photo provided by York County Jail, James Pak, 74, of Biddeford, Maine, stands during a booking photo. Pak is to face charges Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 in the shooting deaths Saturday of two of his tenants after a possible dispute over where they parked their cars during a snowstorm, state police said.
The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has ruled that authorities must release transcripts of 911 calls in a murder case involving a long-time Rutland resident.
The decision overturns a ruling by a Superior Court judge earlier this year that said releasing the transcripts of three 911 calls in the case against James Pak, 75, who is accused of killing two people and wounding a third in Biddeford, Maine, on Dec. 29, 2012, could interfere with the ongoing legal case against him.
Pak, a former gardener and mason in Rutland, moved to Maine about six years ago. He came to Vermont as a Korean War orphan, grew up in Danby, and rose to become a prominent Rutland businessman.
The first 911 call on Dec. 29 came from Derrick Thompson, 19, at 6:07 p.m. about 45 minutes before he and his girlfriend, Alicia Welch, 18, were shot dead. He told the dispatcher that Pak, his landlord, was threatening him and banging on the door.
Three minutes after the last officer left the building at 17 Sokokis Road, Thompson’s mother, 45 year-old Susan Johnson, called 911 again at 6:51 p.m. saying that Pak had just shot her in the back, then killed her son and his son’s girlfriend, according to police.
The Portland Press Herald sought transcripts of those two 911 calls and a third from Pak’s wife to find what Thompson told the dispatcher and why police dismissed the situation as a “civil issue” and left just minutes before it turned deadly.
Superior Court Justice Roland Cole had ruled March 8 that there is a “reasonable possibility” that public disclosure of those calls could interfere with the case and that disclosure could “hypothetically influence the input of potential witnesses.”
Before Thursday’s 7-0 ruling by a panel of justices of the state’s highest court, the transcripts were subject to what the newspaper considered a blanket denial by state law enforcement officials.
The appeal by MaineToday Media Inc., the parent company of the Press Herald, challenged Cole’s decision on two points: whether 911 call transcripts, which are otherwise public record, can be made confidential when placed in a law enforcement file, and whether Cole had sufficient evidence to determine that there is a “reasonable possibility” that releasing the transcripts would interfere with the case.
“We conclude that the state failed to meet its burden of establishing the reasonable possibility that disclosure of the Pak E-911 transcripts would interfere with law enforcement proceedings,” the Supreme Judicial Court said in the ruling written by Justice Ellen Gorman.
The ruling directs the case to be returned to the Superior Court with an order that a judgment be changed to require state authorities to disclose the transcripts associated with the Pak case.
Though the ruling makes no mention of how future requests for release of 911 transcripts would be handled, it sets a legal precedent for release of transcripts that the state had previously deemed confidential.
“The court has made it clear that government secrecy cannot win out over the public’s right to know,” said Cliff Schechtman, executive editor of the Portland Press Herald. “This ruling will allow the public to better evaluate how well first responders protect and serve their communities.”
Pak has pleaded innocent in York County Superior Court. The case against him remains pending.
Maine Deputy Attorney General William Stokes, who represented the state in the lawsuit, said he was disappointed and “a little surprised” by the supreme court’s decision. He said he believed the state’s argument to withhold 911 calls and transcripts was strong.
“An investigation doesn’t end when someone is charged,” he said. “We’re always concerned when that type of information is in the public domain. But we’ll comply with the decision.”
Asked when he would release the 911 transcript in the Pak case, Stokes said his staff would have to redact any information that can be withheld under law. He also said staff would contact family members of the victims so they are not “blindsided” by reading new information in the newspaper.
Thirty-nine states have no restrictions on the release of 911 calls or the information in them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Five states, including Maine, impose some restrictions. Six states, including Vermont, keep 911 recordings confidential.