Judge Declines to Unseal APD Documents Prior to Trial
Federal District Judge Lee Yeakel on Tuesday denied an attempt to unseal internal police department documents related to the May 2011 police killing of Byron Carter, ruling that the documents should remain confidential unless and until a civil rights suit filed in the aftermath of the shooting death goes to trial in July.
Carter, 20, was shot five times while riding in the passenger seat of a car being driven by his teenaged friend Leyumba Webb. According to police, Webb drove his car at Austin Police Officers Nathan Wagner and Jeffrey Rodriguez after the pair approached Webb and Carter. Wagner fired into the car after seeing Rodriguez fall to the ground; Wagner believed that Rodriguez had been hit and may be dragged by the car, according to the official police version of events.
Attorney Adam Loewy filed suit against Wagner on behalf of Carter's family. In response, Robert Icenhauer-Ramirez, who is representing Wagner, has filed a motion for summary judgement with the court, seeking to have the case dismissed. In responding to that motion, Loewy sought to have unsealed several documents – including portions of the APD's internal affairs investigation and a report completed by the city police monitor – that Loewy argues show that the officers involved in the shooting have over time made significant changes to their accounts of what happened the night Carter was killed.
In court Tuesday afternoon, Loewy argued that it was difficult for him to respond to Icenhauer-Ramirez's motion without referring directly to the documents that are under seal. Moreover, Loewy argued that by forcing him to file pleadings that are partially redacted allows the city to continue to control the narrative of the shooting – to the ultimate detriment of the Carter family.
Yeakel appeared unimpressed by Loewy's arguments, saying that a lawyer should be able to file cogent pleadings without violating confidentiality – "and I don't think this places an undue burden on your client," Yeakel said. "This is the first time this has come up and I can't for the life of me" see a reason to change procedure now, to unseal documents prior to trial. Of course, he noted, if the case survives the summary judgement process and moves to trial documents that are considered relevant evidence will likely be unsealed during the open court proceeding.
Yeakel gave Loewy until Feb. 15 to revise and file his response to the summary judgement motion and has given Icenhauer-Ramirez until Feb. 20 to file anything additional. Then, he said he will "proceed directly to rule." If Yeakel rules that there remain fact issues that need settling, the case will go to trial in July.