Newspaper sues police agencies for withholding records in SC murder case

The lawsuit alleges that investigators violated the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to release police reports and 911 calls

By Jake Shore
The Island Packet (Hilton Head Island, S.C.)

CHARLESTON, S.C. — The Post and Courier in Charleston filed a lawsuit Thursday against the police agencies investigating the murders of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh, alleging that they violated the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to release police reports and 911 calls.

The newspaper sued the S.C. Law Enforcement Division and the Colleton County Sheriff's Office over the investigation into the June 7 murders.

Paul Murdaugh, 22, and his mother, Maggie, 52, were found dead of multiple gunshot wounds at their Colleton County home. Colleton County deputies responded to the scene after a 911 call from Alec Murdaugh, Paul's father and Maggie's husband, where he said he found them dead.

The investigation was turned over to SLED, but the Sheriff's Office continued to assist. Since then, the agencies have released little to no information, leaving rumors and gossip to fill the void.

By law, South Carolina police agencies are required to provide reports that "disclose the nature, substance, and/or location of any crime or alleged crime."

Many circumvent this rule by providing bare-bones descriptions of what happened. The Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette asked the Colleton County Sheriff's Office on June 9 for an incident report and received a one-line report.

Asked for a supplement report, the agency told the Beaufort County newspapers that it couldn't release anything else due to "an active investigation."

The Charleston newspaper's lawsuit, filed by Edward Fenno of Fenno Law Firm LLC in Mount Pleasant, contends that a Post and Courier reporter went to the Sheriff's Office and was also denied access to documents or information beyond the one-line incident report.

The reporter was told the report must come from SLED. When a different reporter went to SLED's offices, that reporter was also turned away.

The state's Freedom of Information Act maintains that incident and supplement reports are public information.

SLED has also denied requests by the Post and Courier, the Island Packet, and the Beaufort Gazette newspapers to review 911 calls associated with the incident.

While SLED and the Sheriff's Office has said there is no danger to the public, no names of suspects have been released. There's been no arrests and no information about any motives.

"If the Murdaughs were murdered, the public may be in danger from the killer or killers," the lawsuit states.

Jay Bender, a South Carolina Press Association attorney who often deals with S.C. open records law, said the decision by SLED and the Colleton County Sheriff's Office to keep silent is a mistake.

[READ: Roundtable: How to educate officials on the value of the public information officer]

"Police are handicapping themselves," Bender said by phone Thursday. "There might be information the public has that might be helpful to law enforcement agencies."

Tommy Crosby, a spokesperson for SLED, said Thursday afternoon that the agency could not comment on the lawsuit.

"We are aware of pending litigation," he said, "and it would be inappropriate to comment as a lawsuit has been filed."

(c)2021 The Island Packet (Hilton Head, S.C.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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