In the deaths of two young women, judges barred the public from learning if any public money was paid to the inmates’ families. An advocate calls the secrecy “incredibly disappointing.”
Jessica Lynn Martin and Kelly Ann Green died after being booked in North Carolina jails. They were young women with serious health issues, and their families claimed that negligence in the jails contributed to their deaths. Officials agreed to pay settlements to their families. In both cases, judges barred the public from finding out if any public money was paid to the inmates’ families. One judge initially didn’t follow the law on explaining his ruling, while the other judge made a finding but didn’t explain his order, the Raleigh News & Observer reports in the last of a five-part series. Generally, the details of settlements involving state and local governments are public record. The law allows for an exception, but only after a judge has issued a written order that concludes “the presumption of openness is overcome by an overriding interest” that “cannot be protected by any measure short of sealing the settlement.”
In the case of Green, Judge Craig Croom’s order found that the settlement wasn’t a public record and that the parties’ interest of privacy overrode the presumption of openness. In the case of Martin, Judge Bradley Letts even sealed his order that sealed the settlement. After The News & Observer cited the need for an explanation, Letts revisited the Haywood case and came up with a new justification. He ruled the terms should stay secret because the section of the jail where Martin was treated meets the definition of a “hospital facility,” which is protected under the law from disclosing medical malpractice settlements. Jonathan Jones, a former prosecutor in Durham who leads the N.C. Open Government Coalition and Sunshine Center at Elon University, said both cases are “incredibly disappointing” examples of judges keeping the public in the dark.