ASU notifies students of rape investigation after WSFA story air - - The News for South Mississippi

ASU notifies students of rape investigation after WSFA story airs

ASU letter to students following airing of WSFA 12 News report. ASU letter to students following airing of WSFA 12 News report.

WSFA 12 News broke the news Thursday of a gang rape investigation on the campus of Alabama State University. The alleged rape reportedly happened Nov. 1 in a dorm on campus.

After WSFA's story aired Thursday night, Alabama State University notified the student body about the investigation for the first time through an emailed letter. It reads:

"Dear Students:

Some of you may be aware that a local television station reported this evening that a sexual assault occurred on our campus in November of 2013. The news report inaccurately accused the University of trying to cover up the incident. I wanted to respond to our student community immediately that the station's accusations of a cover up are not true.

As with all incidents of this nature that involve students, our first concern is to protect our students. A female student made the allegations. Once the report was received, the University's Department of Public Safety immediately launched and executed a thorough investigation. When the investigation was compete, the findings were turned over to the Montgomery County District Attorney's Office.

The physical safety and protection of the good names of our students are of paramount importance to the University. We will keep you informed of developments related to this incident as public information becomes available."

It was two-month struggle to obtain public records to confirm the investigation in this case after the alleged victim's family contacted WSFA 12 News. Now we're digging deeper into what exactly is public record and why the documents were initially withheld.

Incident reports were created specifically for public consumption in Alabama. The purpose of the document is to notify citizens and the media of criminal investigations in short order and to compile state criminal statistics.

"They do not form the investigative file for any law enforcement agency. They are for public reporting information purposes," said Dennis Bailey, Alabama Press Association's legal counsel.

Bailey remembers the meeting some seven years ago that helped establish this form and the information that should be released to the public inside. The front page, which is key, usually only consists of very generic information -- the date and time an incident occurs and the type of offense.

"There was a consensus that the information you see now on the front of an incident offense report would not interfere with any criminal investigation and it could and should be public record within a short period of time," Bailey said.

ASU denied WSFA 12 News this information for weeks as we attempted to confirm allegations of a gang rape. ASU Public Safety Director Henry Davis said he stands by his decision to withhold the information.

"We wanted to make sure in our investigation that we did everything we could to give them an opportunity to have due process without being judged whether it was in the public or by the campus," Davis said Thursday.

Davis contends he had the right to withhold the public documents even though the front page only confirmed a rape investigation.

Bailey says officers do have the right to withhold the other pages of the report, but in almost every case that doesn't include the first page.

Still there are recommendations to meet the requirements while also protecting the integrity of the investigation like redacting or covering the information that could be an issue.

WSFA was forced to involve its attorney to obtain a copy of the front page of the report, which happened one week after the lawyer's initial request.

Davis says it was only released because his investigation was complete. It's a decision that's raising some eyebrows in the legal community.

"It's not the way open records laws work in Alabama. The government is not given the authority to make that decision. The records are open and accessible to the public, whether the public official likes that or not," Bailey said.

Copyright 2014 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.

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