A Columbus attorney has filed a lawsuit against the Lowndes County Board of Supervisors claiming he was denied public records from Lowndes County Justice Court.
Chuck Easley filed his complaint Wednesday in Lowndes County Chancery Court. In the suit, Easley states he was denied access to copies of the criminal charges against Lydia and Christina Martinez, two women facing murder charges in the case of Manuel Vasquez, missing and presumed to be dead after burned human remains were discovered near their New Hope home.
Easley’s suit states that on Aug. 20 he requested copies of the affidavits against Lydia and Christina Martinez — who had approached him for legal consultation — at Lowndes County Justice Court. The request was denied. Easley says he was told by Justice Court Judge Ron Cooke paperwork on the cases was being restricted under direction of District Attorney Forrest Allgood. Easley, a former state Supreme Court Justice, said this violates the rights of the Martinezes and his right to practice law.
Last week, The Dispatch tried to collect the Martinez affidavits. The Dispatch was also denied by Justice Court employees, who said Allgood had asked they not give out any paperwork regarding the case.
Allgood told The Dispatch on Thursday that there had been a miscommunication between his office and justice court, and that he would reach out to justice court to correct it.
“A lot of lawyers try to get discovery — what’s called discovery — at the preliminary hearing and they’re not entitled to that,” Allgood said.
Affidavits, while they may include pieces of discovery, are public record.
“There’s a rule that provides discovery, but it doesn’t kick in until the case gets to Circuit Court,” Allgood said. “Apparently, people think (Easley) was trying to get discovery. Anything that’s a matter of public record, he can get.”
The district attorney said he was worried about discovery being given early in the case and said he had spoken to Justice Court officials about those concerns. However, Allgood said he had not meant to convey to the justice court to seal all records. The discovery would include full police files on the case, which are not made available to legal council until the case reaches Circuit Court.
“Maybe we did not understand each other, that is certainly a possibility,” Allgood said.
The Dispatch, after speaking to Allgood, went to Justice Court and requested the Martinez affidavits again. The Dispatch was allowed to fill out a records request to get the affidavits and told that the documents would be released Friday afternoon.
Easley said he intended to go forward with his suit, because he has already been denied access to open records in an attempt to practice law.
“They’ve already broken the law,” Easley said. “I’m not going to take their word that they’re going to be honest now … I don’t believe their excuse.”
Matt Steffey, a law professor at Mississippi College, told The Dispatch it sounded more like a case of ignorance than malice. He does not believe the district attorney was purposefully giving orders to justice court.
He said many government entities have a poor understanding of what is and is not public record, and that this could be a case of miscommunication.
“The justice court doesn’t have a separate file of the documents, so every time they need a document they have to get it from the DA’s office,” Steffey said. “My guess is the last time it was requested, someone in the DA’s office said, ‘No’ without knowing they were only looking for the affidavits. But it could be that the DA was trying to keep the lid on it while he investigates the case.”
Easley’s lawsuit asks that the county “comply with the law and furnish the requested documents” to him.