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Saunders v. City of Chicago

United States District Court, N.D. Illinois, Eastern Division

July 19, 2017

MICHAEL SAUNDERS, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF CHICAGO, et al., Defendants. VINCENT THAMES, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF CHICAGO, et al., Defendants. HAROLD RICHARDSON, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF CHICAGO, et al., Defendants.

          Magistrate Judge, Sheila Finnegan

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT M. DOW, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before the Court are Plaintiffs Michael Saunders, Vincent Thames, and Harold Richardson (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) combined renewed motion to unseal and joint objections to Magistrate Judge Finnegan's November 29, 2016, order, which denied Plaintiffs' motion to unseal the 302 report of Special Agent Jeffrey Moore's March 14, 2012 interview with Defendant Terence Johnson. Plaintiffs' combined motions were filed under each their individual cases, see Saunders, Case No. 12-cv-9158, Docket Entry [410; 412]; Thames, Case No. 12-cv-9170, Docket Entry [306; 308]; Richardson, Case No. 12-cv-9184, Docket Entry [328; 329], although these cases have been consolidated for purposes of discovery and other common issues, see Richardson, Case No. 12-cv-9184, Docket Entry [42].[1] For the reasons stated below, Plaintiffs' joint objections, Saunders, Case No. 12-cv-9158, Docket Entry [410; 412]; Thames, Case No. 12-cv-9170, Docket Entry [306; 308]; Richardson, Case No. 12-cv-9184, Docket Entry [328; 329], are overruled, but their renewed motion to unseal is granted. In addition, as a housekeeping matter, Plaintiff Richardson's motion for clarification, Case No. 12-cv-9184, Docket Entry [336], is stricken as moot in view of the sealed and unsealed versions of the operative complaint [339; 340] that have been filed on the docket.

         I. Background

         Plaintiffs Michael Saunders, Vincent Thames, and Harold Richardson allege that certain Defendants fabricated evidence used to secure their wrongful convictions for the 1994 rape and murder of Nina Glover in Chicago, Illinois. One such Defendant is former Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Terence Johnson, who was named as a Defendant early on in the Saunders (Case No. 12-cv-9158, Docket Entry [1]) and Thames (Case No. 12-cv-9170, Docket Entry [5]) actions. Richardson did not name Johnson in his original compliant, but was granted leave to file an amended complaint adding Johnson as a Defendant earlier this year. [335; 340.] Richardson's request was prompted, in part, by documents produced by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2016 concerning Johnson-namely, Special Agent Jeffrey Moore's March 14, 2012 interview with Johnson as memorialized in a 302 report (“Johnson 302”). The present motions concern the unsealing of that report and other sealed filings that discuss this report.

         As this Court previously explained, Plaintiffs contend that the Johnson 302 shows that

[Defendant] Johnson * * * made damning admissions about the investigation of the Glover rape and homicide and the manner in which the Officer Defendants worked alongside ASAs Johnson and [another ASA] to procure the confessions that were ultimately the basis for Plaintiffs' wrongful convictions. Johnson's admissions allegedly provided evidence that the ASAs worked alongside the Officer Defendants, during the interrogations and thereafter (for instance, during a suppression hearing), to fabricate and coerce Plaintiffs' confession and ensure that they would hold up in court.

[335, at 6-7.] Defendants respond that “nothing in Johnson's report proves the confessions were ‘false' and the word ‘coerced' is not in the statement.” [341, at 5.]

         The FBI produced the Johnson 302 pursuant to an Amended Privacy Act Protection Order [218], which provides that documents produced by the FBI “shall be used solely for the purposes of litigating or resolving this action and for no other purpose whatsoever and shall not be disclosed, disseminated, or transmitted to any person, entity, or organization except in accordance with the terms of this Protective Order.” Id. ¶ 5. Consistent with that order (see id. ¶ 6), Plaintiffs moved to unseal the Johnson 302 with certain redactions. Neither the FBI nor Defendant City of Chicago opposed this request, but several other Defendants did and filed briefs in opposition. [222; 225; Saunders, Case No. 12-cv-9158, Docket Entry 318.]

         On November 29, 2016, Magistrate Judge Finnegan denied Plaintiffs' motion, concluding that Defendants rebutted any presumption in favor of public access to these documents by showing “good cause” and a sufficient “competing interest.” [325.] Magistrate Judge Finnegan explained this showing was made because of “the risk of excessive (and potentially distorted) media coverage of inadmissible information that could potentially taint the[se] proceedings and deprive [Defendants] of a fair trial.” Id. at 8-13. Magistrate Judge Finnegan also cautioned that the balancing between any presumption of public accessibility to the report and the competing interests could be altered based on motions that were currently pending before this district court:

To the extent any of the interview reports produced by the FBI affect such a judicial decision later in the litigation (e.g., a ruling on Richardson's pending motion for leave to amend his complaint or on any other substantive, non-discovery issue in the case), the right of public access might then arise. Moreover, if Judge Dow rules that information in the Johnson interview report is admissible, the risk of jury or trial taint resulting from its unsealing would be reduced. And since Judge Dow will be making these substantive and evidentiary determinations, the issues of whether and when the Johnson interview report should be unsealed in whole or in part are best left to his discretion.

Id. at 13. Plaintiffs' filed a timely objection to Magistrate Judge Finnegan's November 29 ruling. See Saunders, Case No. 12-cv-9158, Docket Entry [410; 412]; Thames, Case No. 12-cv-9170, Docket Entry [306; 308]; Richardson, Case No. 12-cv-9184, Docket Entry [328; 329].

         There have been two other developments since Plaintiffs filed their objections. First, as noted, the Court granted Richardson's request to amend his complaint naming Johnson as a Defendant on January 4, 2017. [See 335.] Second, a jury trial in a related state court case involving Terrill Swift-one of the teenagers who was allegedly wrongfully convicted along with Plaintiffs-had been set to begin not long after Magistrate Judge Finnegan's ruling, but the parties settled ...


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