NEW HAVEN, Conn. A Superior Court judge has rejected a request for prison records of an East Hartford man who served 18 years in prison for a rape he did not commit, ruling that the release would invade his privacy.
The decision by Judge Howard Owens overturns a Freedom of Information Commission ruling last year in favor of releasing the documents related to James Tillman, who was freed from prison in 2006 after being exonerated by new DNA evidence. The Associated Press had sought the records, but Tillman and the state opposed the request.
"This court concludes that release of the documents in question, which have no bearing on Tillman's guilt or innocence of the offense for which he now has been entirely exonerated, and which reflect on aspects of his life during the time that he was forced to serve a lengthy sentence for a crime that he indisputably did not commit, would constitute an unjustified prying into Tillman's life with which reasonable members of the public would say they have no concern," Owens wrote in an Aug. 14 ruling.
Clifton Leonhardt, chief counsel for the FOI Commission, acknowledged that Tillman deserved sympathy for his ordeal. But he said he did not believe the records invaded Tillman's privacy and said such records should be public to provide oversight of prisons and prevent abuses.
"Hard cases make bad law," Leonhardt said. "I think this was a very good example of that old axiom."
The ruling sets a precedent, Leonhardt said. He said he believed it was the first time a Superior Court judge in Connecticut had ruled on releasing prisoner-disciplinary records.
"The tendency previously was to release such records," Leonhardt said.
But Leonhardt said the ruling was carefully written to focus on Tillman's unusual circumstances, rather than expand the exemption for releasing records.
Leonhardt said he was not sure whether he would appeal the decision.
Telephone messages left yesterday for Charles Ray, Tillman's attorney, were not returned in time for this story.
Owens said the FOI Commission's concern about prisoner abuse was too speculative a rationale to disclose the records.
The state last year awarded $5 million to Tillman as compensation for his ordeal.
Tillman, who was 26 when he was arrested, was sentenced to 45 years in prison after being convicted of raping and beating a woman in downtown Hartford in 1988. The victim identified him, but Tillman was exonerated after DNA tests showed he could not have been the attacker.