The debate over the release of jail house phone calls from incarcerated detainees and prison inmates is cut and dried … legally anyway.
Ethically? That’s another discussion … one with many facets warranting our consideration.
In South Carolina, these calls are clearly defined as public records – meaning they are not exempt from the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). S.C. circuit court judge Robert Bonds reiterated this fundamental truth during a court hearing in Colleton County this week – one in which multiple media outlets (including FITSNews) sought jail house calls from 34-year-old grocery store butcher Ryan L. Manigo.
Manigo stands accused of slaughtering six people in the horrific ‘Green Pond Massacre’ – a mass stabbing/ arson/ sexual assault incident that took place in the rural Green Pond Community in Colleton County over the Fourth of July weekend.
The details of this case are monstrously graphic – arguably the worst I have encountered in my years as a newsman.
Our media outlet has submitted three different FOIA requests for Manigo’s jail house calls – requests his public defenders have moved to preemptively shut down.
What are they trying to hide? Good question …
Our goal in trying to obtain these public records is simple: To see if they might contain anything materially relevant to this case. That includes anything that might help answer some of the most basic questions being asked by the family members of the massacre’s victims: 101-year-old Maggie Magwood, 73-year-old Amose Magwood, 50-year-old Michelle Wright, 49-year-old Jefferson Burnell, 11-year-old Sariyah Manigo (the accused killer’s daughter) and 7-year-old Shamiah Rutledge.
These family members want to know why … why did a man who was brought into their family, protected by their family, provided for by this family … why did he turn on them in the most heinously savage way imaginable?
If there is something in those calls that points to an answer to that question … we want to help this family find it.
And if Manigo was dumb enough to confess to the murders – or make some other incriminating acknowledgment on one of these calls – such a statement would seem particularly relevant to the conduct of the investigation.
And clearly worthy of releasing to the public …
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This week, Bonds ruled (correctly) that Manigo’s calls are public records – and, by virtue of being designated as such, are subject to FOIA.
As our regular audience is well aware, FITSNews has been at the vanguard of this important open records conversation. We were the first media outlet to publish Alex Murdaugh’s pretrial phone calls with multiple members of his family – calls which, incidentally, exposed an attempt by Murdaugh to unethically readmit his surviving son, Buster Murdaugh, into the University of South Carolina law school.
More relevant at the systemic level, jail house calls exclusively obtained by this media outlet pulled the curtain back on other various and sundry nefariousness in our courts. Specifically, they exposed attempts by accused killers to leverage the influence of powerful lawyer-legislators like S.C. minority leader Todd Rutherford to manipulate bond dockets.
Uncovering such misconduct is the whole point of FOIA – and the whole reason we seek these public records under the law. And again, the law is on our side – as is the limited case history.
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Three months ago, former S.C. chief justice Jean Toal ruled that jail house calls featuring Jamie Lee Komoroski – the defendant in a high-profile felony driving under the influence case in Charleston County, S.C. – were public records subject to FOIA. Not only that, Toal correctly awarded tens of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees to the media outlets which were improperly denied access to these calls.
But while there is no question such calls are public records – and thus subject to release – there is a broader debate taking shape as to whether they should be released. That debate includes legitimate constitutional concerns arising from the release of such records – to say nothing of concerns that many (if not most) in the media cannot be counted on to handle their publication the right way.
While my attorneys capably advanced the cause of transparency and open records during this week’s court hearing in Colleton County, I must admit finding myself moved by the arguments put forward against the release of the calls by attorney Robert Bank of the South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense (SCCID).
While Bank’s contention that the calls were not public records fell on deaf ears (as it should have), his subsequent arguments in Manigo’s defense actually made a lot of sense – especially his arguments that pre-trial publicity arising from the release of the calls could adversely impact his client’s right to receive a fair trial.
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Without first hearing the calls, it is impossible to say whether the “fair trial” concern is legitimate – which is another reason the media should be allowed to hear them. Still, Bank’s underlying concern for Manigo’s due process rights is not without merit. One particularly effective argument he put forward was the contention Manigo could be subjected to an equal protection violation in the event his calls were released as a result of his status as an inmate previously denied bond.
Basically, Bank was saying defendants who receive a bond also receive an unfair pre-trial advantage over those who are denied bond. And as we know in South Carolina, bond decisions can be hugely subjective – and tremendously controversial.
Do I buy that argument? Not necessarily … but it’s certainly something for courts to consider in a state in which bonds are doled out/ denied so haphazardly (and so corruptly). More fundamentally, I do believe there is merit to the underlying privacy argument – the contention that not all jail house calls are created equal and that some should be granted the courtesy of privacy, if not the expectation of (or established right thereunto).
Again, though … how will we know which ones fall into which category unless we are first allowed to hear them?
Therein lies the rub …
Also, no matter what category they ultimately fall into, does that make any of these calls any less of a public record under the law? In South Carolina, the statute on that last question is clear: They are all public records.
There is no easy answer to this broader debate, but I have become convinced of one certainty: My responsibility as a journalist to strike the proper balance in publishing jail house calls is paramount. As my attorneys (and lawyers for other media outlets) continue to argue passionately in court for the release of these calls – the weight of responsibility is squarely upon those of us in the Fourth Estate to discharge our duties in a manner worthy of the trust reposed in us by those who authored our FOIA laws.
Simply put, if we invoke the public interest – we must in turn act in the public interest.
What do you think?
Should jail house calls of detainees and inmates be released to the public?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven (soon to be eight) children.
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