Governor Ralph Northam signed into law legislation that will make criminal investigative files in closed cases accessible to the public. The law, which will take effect on July 1, passed the House in February and the Senate in March. These records contain critical information that may help provide closure to crime victims, overturn wrongful convictions, and shed light on law enforcement investigations into police-involved shootings. The legislation changes the current practice that allows agencies to choose whether or not to release these files and frequently results in denials.
“It’s been over a year since my wife Kate was killed by a gunman at the Virginia Beach Municipal building. My family still doesn’t have closure because the police department has refused to release its investigation into what happened,” said Jason Nixon, whose wife, Kate Nixon, was among 12 people shot to death by a coworker in 2019. “The passage of this law will finally allow the victims of the Virginia Beach mass shooting to get the answers we deserve about why this tragedy occurred and how we can prevent it from happening again.”
The legislation will help victims of police brutality and other crimes to heal, while also building trust between law enforcement and communities by ensuring fair investigations of police killings, addressing wrongful convictions, and delivering justice for crime victims.
“For too many years, Virginia lawmakers prioritized finality over justice. This bill is yet another sign that those priorities have shifted,” said Shawn Armbrust, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project. “Like last year’s changes to the Writ of Actual Innocence, this bill will ensure that innocent prisoners in Virginia will have the tools they need to secure their freedom.”
Without such a statute, police have regularly denied requests from the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project and the Innocence Project at the University of Virginia Law School for criminal investigative files that could provide critical evidence to overturn wrongful convictions. Additionally, the Virginia Beach Police Department has refused to release the results of its investigation into last year’s mass shooting by a city employee, despite requests from victims’ families. The passage of this legislation will restore some confidence in communities that thorough investigations are being completed.
“We are grateful that Virginia has taken another step toward transparency and fairness in its criminal justice system, and we are hopeful that this will allow us to uncover and remedy more wrongful convictions of innocent men and women in the Commonwealth,” said Jennifer L. Givens, Director of the Innocence Project at UVA School of Law.
Virginia now joins 32 other states and the federal government in presuming public access to these records. The legislation was based on the federal Freedom of Information Act, which is the model used in 12 other states. It balances the public’s right to know with protections for ongoing investigations, privacy, and safety.
“A police officer framed four innocent sailors in the “Norfolk Four” case and is now in federal prison, but the Norfolk Police have refused to turn over files on other cases in which he might have framed innocent people,” said Beth Powers, State Campaign Director at the Innocence Project. “Since law enforcement agencies investigate police misconduct and brutality cases, this bill is important to revealing wrongful convictions and ensuring law enforcement is adequately investigating their own.”
With the Governor’s signature, the law will take effect on July 1, 2021.