The state’s highest court today ordered an affidavit detailing a minor’s allegations that she was raped by Quincy developer William O’Connell at his residence at Quincy Bay Marina to be made public.
In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court backed a request by the Quincy Patriot Ledger newspaper to unseal the search warrant affidavit filed in Quincy District Court by State Police Trooper Kathleen Prince last year as prosecutors investigated rape allegations against O’Connell.
The documents were first sealed, but a district court judge later agreed with the newspaper and ordered its release, prompting O’Connell and the special Norfolk prosecutor on the case to ask the SJC to keep the record sealed. O’Connell argued his right to a fair trial was threatened by the disclosure, and prosecutors contended that record must be kept confidential under a state law making police reports on sex crimes confidential.
In a friend of the court brief filed with the SJC, Attorney General Martha Coakley urged the SJC to keep the document impounded out of concern that victims of sex crimes will not cooperate with law enforcement if they know details of the incident will be made available to the public.
Today, the SJC concluded that the state law keeping police reports of sex crimes confidential does not apply to court records, especially affidavits prepared by police as they seek judicial approval for a search warrant.
To adopt the proposal backed by O’Connell and prosecutors, Justice Fernande R.V. Duffly wrote for the court, would impair the public’s right to observe the criminal justice system.
“If applied to judicial records, such a requirement would have unacceptably far-reaching consequences. A wide range of court records in cases involving allegations of rape or sexual assault would be subject to mandatory and permanent impoundment, regardless of the specific facts or circumstances of each case,’’ Duffly wrote. “The United States Supreme Court has emphatically rejected blanket prohibitions on public access to judicial proceedings.’’
The SJC also said that when O’Connell does go to trial, the judge in charge of his case has wide ranging powers to assure potential jurors are not influenced by the news coverage of the case and to take other steps considered necessary to protect’s O’Connell’s Sixth Amendment fair trial rights.
“In the context of a criminal proceeding, the public’s right of access, whether derived from the United States Constitution or common law, must be balanced against the defendant’s constitutional right to a fair trial,’’ Duffly wrote. “Judges are well equipped to safeguard a defendant’s right to a fair trial.’’
Last September, O’Connell pleaded not guilty in Norfolk Superior Court to 12 charges, including four counts of aggravated statutory rape, two counts of engaging in unnatural acts and trafficking in cocaine. He is free on $150,000 cash bail.
Coakley’s office appeared before the SJC to argue about the legal issues raised in the O’Connell case.
O’Connell is being prosecuted by special prosecutor Andrew DiCarlo Berman at the request of Norfolk District Attorney Michael Morrissey to avoid a conflict of interest. Morrissey worked with O’Connell on development projects while he was a lawmaker representing Quincy on Beacon Hill.