Move to close some death investigation records seen as response to Judd family concerns

Senate leader in Tennessee files privacy bill; open records advocates warn it’s too broad and would withhold information the public needs

By: - December 6, 2022 5:45 am

Tennessee Capitol (Photo by Getty Images)

Legislation sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson would close public records in death investigations such as those surrounding the suicide of country music legend Naomi Judd, a move drawing opposition from open records advocates.

Johnson, a Franklin Republican, filed Senate Bill 9 in advance of the 113th General Assembly, a measure that would conceal law enforcement investigative reports, 911 recordings, photographs and any other records connected to a death if law enforcement agencies determine it was not the result of a crime. The bill also would make confidential the body camera footage of the inside of a home recorded in the investigation.

Johnson declined to comment Monday on the legislation, which has no House sponsor yet. But it is widely believed the bill stems from concerns raised by Judd’s family, who filed a complaint against Williamson County Sheriff’s Office to stop the release of information from its investigation of the country music singer’s April death. Her daughter, Ashley Judd, has said her mother died by suicide.

The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government is lobbying against the bill, contending it could further crimp the public’s right to have critical information related to law enforcement investigations.

We would be concerned about when police were investigating one of their own in terms of a potential criminal conduct and the ability to basically say no crime occurred, which may be the case, but there’s no second check on that.

– Deborah Fisher, Tennesee Coaliton for Open Government

“My initial reaction to the bill is that it is quite broad and would close access to police files that have traditionally been open after a case is closed,” says Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Fisher contends those files provide not just “accountability” for how police handle an investigation but also could be valuable in proving whether an officer did or didn’t use excessive force on a person who either suffered serious injury or died when coming into contact with police.

If police determine no crime was committed, then any information connected to the incident would be closed to the public forever, Fisher points out.

“We would be concerned about when police were investigating one of their own in terms of a potential criminal conduct and the ability to basically say no crime occurred, which may be the case, but there’s no second check on that” because all of the records would be confidential, Fisher says.

In some instances, records could prove that police officers acted properly by killing a suspect who tries to attack them, she adds.

Fisher is also unclear how the legislation would work in cases when, for instance, a body is found and police can’t determine whether a crime occurred. She wonders whether all of that information would be considered off limits to the public.

The open records advocate points out the state has “managed to co-exist” for decades with the law, which has proven useful for journalists and the general public.

The Judd family filed suit this summer against Williamson County to prevent it from releasing information connected to the death of the family matriarch, then took action against journalists who filed open records requests.

Ashley Judd, an actress who considered a political campaign in 2014 as a Kentucky Democrat, penned a column for the New York Times saying the “horror” of the family’s loss will only get worse if details about the death are disclosed through Tennessee’s open records law.

“And now that I know from bitter experience the pain inflicted on families that have had a loved one die by suicide, I intend to make the subsequent invasion of privacy – the deceased person’s privacy and the family’s privacy – a personal as well as a legal cause,” she wrote.

Judd also said in the column that investigators recorded interviews with her while she was still in a state of shock over her mother’s death and made her feel as if she was a suspect in their investigation.

In addition, Judd wrote that her family identifies with Vanessa Bryant, the wife of NBA star Kobe Bryant who was killed along with his daughter and the passengers of a helicopter two years ago, after she endured the release of details surrounding the deaths.

“The raw details are used only to feed a craven gossip economy, and as we cannot count on basic human decency, we need laws that will compel that restraint,” Judd wrote.

Judd noted she hopes congressional and state legislative leaders will provide “some basic protections for those involved in the police response to mental health emergencies.”

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.