Denied records, Northwestern journalism students appeal to the Illinois Attorney General
By Alison Flowers with contributions from Mitchell Armentrout, Timna Axel, Lynne Fort, Janice Janeczko, Erin Kim,Valerie King, Joseph Lumley, Safiya Merchant, Ashley Powell and Miranda Viglietti
Medill Innocence Project
Updated: Dec. 7, 2012
The Medill Innocence Project is fighting to gain access to police records after Bartlett, Ill., a western suburb of Chicago, declined to release documents from an 18-year-old murder case Northwestern University journalism students are investigating. Students quickly responded by appealing to the Illinois Attorney General. The state’s attorney in DuPage County is now seeking a protective order from a Circuit Court judge in DuPage that may keep Bartlett from being compelled to release the records.
Last month, students in an investigative journalism class, supported by the Medill Innocence Project, submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Bartlett Police Department, requesting all public documents related to the investigation of a 2 year old’s head trauma in 1994 and death a year later. Pamela Jacobazzi, 57, a former DuPage County daycare worker, is serving 32 years in prison for allegedly shaking and injuring the child; she could be released on parole as early as 2015. Jacobazzi maintains her innocence. She awaits a hearing scheduled next May to see if she will be granted a new trial in DuPage County.
Several weeks ago, Bartlett, with a population of more than 41,000 about 30 miles from Chicago, denied the Medill Innocence Project’s FOIA request. In October, Bartlett police wrote to the Medill Innocence Project that DuPage County had advised that prosecutors had “a substantial interest in the determination and/or subject matter of the request” and counseled that the public documents not be released. Disclosure of the documents, Bartlett’s interim records supervisor stated in the letter, would “interfere with pending law enforcement proceedings.” Bartlett Police Commander Michael McGuigan said the department is standing by DuPage’s response.
“It’s a nearly 20-year-old case; we’re asking for basic public information,” said Alec Klein, director of the Medill Innocence Project. “How can they justify sealing all records?”
With the Medill Innocence Project’s appeal pending, DuPage also filed a motion for a protective order, asking a judge to prohibit the release of any documents relating to the case. Jacobazzi’s attorney is expected to file a response against the protective order late next month. In the interim, the circuit court judge plans to issue a temporary order barring the release of any records.
The Medill Innocence Project sought to contact the deceased infant’s family; an official of DuPage County State’s Attorney Office responded by saying the family declined to comment.
In the Medill Innocence Project’s appeal, students explained that these records have no bearing on pending proceedings. The child died 17 years ago; Jacobazzi was convicted 13 years ago. Jacobazzi is accused of child abuse, allegedly causing a condition that’s known as shaken-baby syndrome. Shaken-baby syndrome is traditionally identified by three symptoms: brain swelling, brain bleeding and retinal hemorrhaging. Since Jacobazzi’s conviction, some experts have challenged the scientific and medical understanding of shaken-baby syndrome, though it remains a controversial criminal-justice issue.
This is not the first time the Medill Innocence Project has appealed when its Freedom of Information Act request has been denied. Earlier this year, the Illinois State Attorney General upheld the Medill Innocence Project’s appeal in its investigation of a different murder conviction, pointing out that the Chicago Fire Department failed to properly look for documents before rejecting the students’ request.
Correction: In our original story published Nov. 21, 2012, we reported that Pamela Jacobazzi is set to be released in 2018. In fact, she will be released from the Illinois Department of Corrections’ system in 2018, but could be released from prison on parole as early as May 2015.