Where psychological reports from defendant’s sanity evaluation were admitted into evidence, the reports are “open to public inspection.”
Defendant pleaded not guilty to charges of second-degree murder and violating a protective order. He pleaded not guilty.
A grand jury indicted defendant for second-degree murder, violating a protective order, and breaking and entering while armed. Defendant provided notice that he intended to present evidence of insanity.
The court ordered appointment of a sanity evaluator, who was to present her reports to both parties. Later, the court accepted defendant’s uncontested not guilty by reason of insanity plea.
“After the Court accepted the Defendant’s plea, the issue of disclosure of the sanity evaluations arose when one of the victim’s daughters noted that she had not seen the evaluation reports but wished to review the reports.” The court received briefs from both parties.
“Before the Court is a matter of first impression: Whether psychological reports from a sanity evaluation that have been admitted into evidence in support of an uncontested Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity plea should be open to public inspection or should be sealed. …
“The Court holds that the psychological reports, having been admitted into evidence, should be, and hereby are, open to public inspection.”
“The Commonwealth argues that the psychological reports admitted into evidence in support of an uncontested Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity plea should be open to public inspection.
“The Commonwealth relies upon the principle that admitted court records are presumptively open to the public, and that, in order to have such records sealed, the defendant would have to establish that disclosure of the records would cause actual harm.
“The Commonwealth contends that the Defendant has not established such harm in this case. …
“The Defendant requests that the Court seal the records from the sanity evaluation.
“The Defendant concedes that the Court has the authority to control its own records, but argues that there is a compelling interest in sealing mental health records, especially in this case where the records contain a substantial amount of the Defendant’s personal mental health information.”
“There is no controlling legal authority on this issue. Consequently, the Court has considered the presumption of openness in court records and the public interest in access to such records, especially records actually admitted into evidence. …
“[T]he Virginia Supreme Court and the Virginia Court of Appeals have held that there is a ‘strong presumption in favor of public access to judicial records.’ …
“The presumption of openness can be overcome; however, it requires that the moving party establish ‘an interest so compelling that it cannot be protected reasonably by some measure other than a protective order.’ …
“To overcome this burden, the party seeking non-disclosure must establish actual, rather than abstract, harm. … This presumption of openness applies with particular strength to records actually admitted into evidence. …
“The two most common reasons for the creation and admission of psychological or psychiatric reports in criminal proceedings are with respect to a defendant’s competency or sanity.
“While the reports serve significantly different purposes, they each typically contain sensitive information regarding a defendant’s mental health, background and circumstances.
“Therefore, in determining whether sanity reports should be open for public inspection, it is instructive to examine how competency reports have been handled in similar circumstances.”
A 2009 Virginia Attorney General opinion stated that “‘a competency evaluation report that was ordered by and submitted to a court as part of the court’s record is open to inspection … provided that such report is not sealed by court order.’”
A survey of case law from other jurisdictions reveals that when courts are faced with the issue of public inspection of psychological reports, those courts have ruled in favor of disclosure.
“‘The commission of crime, prosecutions resulting from it, and judicial proceedings arising from the prosecutions … are without question events of legitimate concern to the public[.]’ …
“Undeniably, the public has a great interest in the disposition of criminal acts that end in a finding of Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity.
“Virginia Code § 17.1-208(B) states: ‘Except as otherwise provided by law, any records that are maintained by the clerks of the circuit courts shall be open to inspection[.]’ …
“Furthermore, the public interest in access to these particular records is substantial. This is for multiple reasons:
“The defendant was charged with an extremely serious offense: murder.
“The Commonwealth exercised its prosecutorial discretion to agree to an uncontested Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity plea.
“Both family members of the victim, who were present in court, advised the Court that they objected to the Commonwealth’s decision to enter into an uncontested Not Guilty By Reason of Insanity case disposition and expressed an interest in reviewing the records from the sanity evaluations.
“The sole evidence offered by the Commonwealth or by the defense in support of the Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity were the two psychological assessments, which the Court admitted into evidence without objection.
“Given the gravity of the case, and given the other circumstances described above, the Court finds that the public should have access to these records.”
“Because the Defendant in this case has not overcome the presumption of openness, and the public interest is so great, the Court holds, and hereby orders, that the sanity evaluation reports admitted in support of the Defendant’s Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity plea be made available by the Clerk of the Court for public inspection and, if requested, duplication.”
Commonwealth v. Bellini, Case Nos. FE-2021-658, FE-2021-715, April 6, 2023. (Opinion and Order) Fairfax County Circuit Court (Bellows). VLW 023-8-021, 11 pp.