Privacy Law

Federal appeals court allows release of grand jury records in 1946 lynching

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A federal appeals court on Monday upheld the release of grand jury records in the 1946 lynching of two black couples in Georgia.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at Atlanta ruled 2-1 that the records may be released to historian Anthony Pitch, who wrote a 2016 book on the lynching. Politico, the Associated Press, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Daily Business Review, the Washington Post and the New York Times have coverage. How Appealing links to the decision.

The majority opinion by Circuit Judge Charles Wilson said the records could be released under 11th Circuit precedent allowing the release of grand jury records in “exceptional circumstances” under a court’s inherent authority.

Wilson said the lynching is historically significant because it is closely tied to the national civil rights movement. He also noted that more than 70 years had passed since the lynching, and “there is no indication that any witnesses, suspects or their immediate family members are alive to be intimidated, persecuted or arrested.”

A dissenting Ohio judge who was sitting on the panel by designation, U.S. District Judge James Graham, said people alive today could be harmed by release of the transcripts because they could reveal embarrassing information about a parent or grandparent.

“I believe that judges should not be so bold as to grant themselves the authority to decide that the historical significance exception should exist and what the criteria should be,” Graham wrote.

The two black couples who were killed at the Moore’s Ford Bridge in Walton County were Roger and Dorothy Malcom and George and Mae Murray Dorsey. President Harry Truman had ordered a federal investigation of their shooting deaths, but a grand jury did not indict any suspects.

The lynching happened after white farmer Loy Harrison paid the bail of Roger Malcom, who had been jailed for the alleged stabbing of another white man. Harrison was driving the two couples home when the attack happened; he was unharmed.

The ruling upholds a decision by U.S. District Judge Marc Treadwell. The U.S. Justice Department had appealed.

Politico said legal experts had closely watched the 11th Circuit case for a potential impact on the DOJ’s ability to make public the results of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“An 11th Circuit ruling is unlikely to serve as a binding precedent for any aspect of Mueller’s D.C.-based inquiry,” Politico reported. “But backers of the investigation have been eager for courts to signal that grand jury materials can be released in extraordinary cases, and that the list of explicit exceptions in federal court rules is not all-inclusive.”

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