(CN) - A death-row inmate can review 16 years' worth of homicide-related court filings to determine whether race led prosecutors to seek capital punishment, a California appeals court ruled.
La Twon Weaver waived his right to a jury trial for the robbery and murder of a jewelry store owner in 1992. A year later, the San Diego Superior Court found that, while Weaver had not planned the crime and was intoxicated during the robbery, he had not hesitated to shoot the unarmed shopkeeper at point-blank range for no apparent reason.
The California Supreme Court unanimously upheld the verdict and Weaver's death sentence in 2012.
But Weaver believes the San Diego County District Attorney's Office selectively prosecutes capital cases - including his own - based on race, and asked for records under the California Public Records Act to help confirm his suspicion. Specifically, Weaver asked for copies of all charging documents in homicide cases between 1977 and 1993 and all court filings in the cases People v. Troiani, et. al. and People v. Moffett, which addressed similar allegations against the DA's office.
Both the district attorney and San Diego Superior Court Judge Richard Strauss denied Weaver's request, agreeing the investigatory files involved are exempt under CPRA. Strauss also joined with the DA's assessment that Weaver's request was overly burdensome and expensive because it required up to 40 hours and $3,400 to complete.
On appeal, however, a panel of the Fourth District Court noted - and the district attorney admitted - that Weaver asked for copies of judicial documents that can already be viewed by the public upon request at the courthouse.
"As a matter of due process, the district attorney is required to file a complaint in each criminal case to invoke the court's jurisdiction," Judge Terry O'Rourke wrote for the panel. "Because they were publicly filed, the charging documents Weaver seeks are not investigatory files exempt from disclosure under the CPRA. Similarly, the documents he seeks from the Troiani and Moffett case files were publicly filed in superior court, and involve motions for disclosure of information regarding claims of selective prosecution. As such, they are not investigatory files exempt from disclosure."
While the DA claimed it would also violate the privacy rights of defendants and victims in homicide cases to give Weaver the files, O'Rourke noted that "there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in documents required to be filed in court when those documents are not filed under seal."
The panel also rejected the district attorney's claims that Weaver's request - which would require a staffer to work a 40-hour week to fulfill - was too burdensome to be allowed under CPRA.
"We conclude the public's interest in the fair administration of the death penalty is a longstanding concern in California, and it is inconceivable to us that any countervailing interest that the District Attorney could assert outweighs the magnitude of the public's interest," O'Rourke wrote for the panel. "The approximately $3,400 expense of generating the list of cases at issue here is substantially less of a reason and pales in comparison to the interests of Weaver and the public in disclosure."