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Senate committee delays decision on criminal case files

Virginia has some of the weakest public disclosure laws in the country for police files. Documents that are widely available in other states are not available in Virginia, even for closed cases.

Last year, lawmakers approved a new bill that allowed for some access in closed cases. But Gil Harrington says that law puts family members of crime victims in the crosshairs. "I'm concerned that free access to information would energize the murder groupies," Harrington told a Senate committee, "folks who are titivated by violent acts particularly against young women."

Harrington is the mother of Morgan Harrington, who was murdered in 2010. She's working with Republican Delegate Rob Bell to roll back the new public documents to prevent salacious material from appearing on a made-for-TV movie.

But Megan Rhyne at the Virginia Coalition for Open Government says returning to the old system would harm public access. "Essentially we are going back to no access again because we learned, prior to 2021, that if given the chance to withhold the file they're going to be withheld."

Lawmakers are trying to work out a compromise that would block access to photos and videos for now and send the rest of the bill to the FOIA Council to study for next year.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.