NASHVILLE (CN) - A group of media outlets are not entitled to police investigation records in a rape case involving former Vanderbilt University football players, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled Thursday.
Brandon Vandenburg and Cory Batey were convicted in January 2015 of aggravated rape, aggravated sexual battery and attempted aggravated rape.
The underlying incident occurred in Vandenburg's Gillette House dorm room at Vanderbilt University in the early morning hours of June 23, 2013. Vandenburg and Batey, along with two others charged and awaiting trial, were kicked off the Vanderbilt Commodores football team after the allegations.
Months after Vandenburg and Batey were convicted, Davidson County Criminal Court Judge Monte Watkins declared a mistrial based on his finding that a juror failed to disclose that he was the key witness and named victim in an unrelated statutory-rape case. Vandenburg and Batey's new trial starts April 4.
Back in June 2013, the Metro Nashville Police Department began investigating the reports of an alleged rape in a Vanderbilt dorm room.
The Tennessean, a Nashville newspaper, filed a public records request on Oct. 17, 2013, asking police for records about the rape investigation involving four former Vanderbilt football players, including text messages and videos from third-party sources.
Nashville police denied the request because the records were part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
The Tennessean and other media organizations - including the Associated Press, Chattanooga Times Free Press, Knoxville News Sentinel and local TV news stations - sued the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County in February 2014, seeking access to the records.
The Davidson County Chancery Court ruled that some of the records were subject to disclosure, but the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed, finding that all of the requested investigation records were exempt.
"It is apparent from the affidavits that the material that is the subject of the request is 'relevant to a pending or contemplated criminal action' and therefore not subject to disclosure," Judge Richard Dinkins wrote for the appeals court in October 2014.
On Thursday afternoon, the Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the appeals court decision 4-1, finding that the Metro Nashville Police Department is not required by state law to release the requested records.
Chief Justice Sharon Lee wrote in the 21-page opinion that Rule 16 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure allows for the release of certain information to the defendant in a criminal case, but not to third parties.
"The media plays an important and necessary role in holding government officials accountable. Yet, the General Assembly has rightly recognized that there must be exceptions to the public's right to obtain government records and, in doing so, has provided that the media's role must yield to the need to protect the rights of defendants accused of crimes and the integrity of the criminal justice system during the pendency of criminal cases and any collateral challenges to criminal convictions," Lee wrote. "Under the facts of this case, Rule 16 governs the disclosure of information, and only the defendants, not the public, may receive information contained in the police investigative files."
The state's high court ruled that the news outlets "have no right to the requested information during the pendency of the criminal cases and any collateral challenges to any convictions." Lee said the ruling protects the alleged victim's privacy concerns.
Justice Gary Wade dissented, agreeing with the Davidson County Chancery Court that only records with witness statements or those that qualify as state work product are shielded under Rule 16.
But Wade found that the alleged victim was entitled to a ruling that public disclosure of records from the rape investigation would violate her right "to be free from intimidation, harassment and abuse throughout the criminal justice system." He said he was concerned that she would have to re-litigate her claim at a later time because documents will not be exempt from disclosure when criminal prosecutions in the case come to an end.
Two others charged in the underlying rape case, Jaborian "Tip" McKenzie and Brandon Banks, have not had their trials scheduled yet. They both agreed to testify for the state in Vandenburg and Batey's first trial but only McKenzie actually did.
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