- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 12, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A judge ruled late Wednesday that some records in the rape case against four former Vanderbilt football players should be released to a media group that argued the public has a right to them.

Some text messages, emails and other material collected by Vanderbilt University related to the case should be turned over to the coalition that includes The Tennessean, The Associated Press and other outlets, Davidson County Chancellor Russell Perkins determined.

The media group sued the city of Nashville last month after investigators refused to release video surveillance, photographs and other material that Vanderbilt University turned over to city police. The media organizations did not ask for additional video or photographs believed to have been taken by defendants during the alleged attack.

“In broad sweep, the central question here is whether the Public Records Act compels a prosecutor to produce sensitive records received from third parties while the underlying criminal prosecution is still pending,” Perkins wrote.

Exemptions in the state’s sunshine law do not amount to a blanket rule blocking the public’s access to any records created by a third party simply because they are part of a criminal investigation, Perkins wrote.

Prosecutors argued that any files that are part of an ongoing criminal investigation are exempt from the state’s public records law. Releasing any such records could harm both the investigation and a defendant’s right to a fair trial, the city maintained.

Four former football players are accused of raping an unconscious student in a dorm on June 23 and have pleaded not guilty to rape and sexual battery charges. The players were dismissed from the school in July. Two are set for trial in August.

Perkins reviewed dozens of CDs and DVDs containing, among other records: surveillance footage from the hallway of the dormitory where the alleged attack took place; a voicemail message from one of the defendants to his friend; and investigators’ interviews with James Franklin, Vanderbilt’s head coach at the time, and assistant coach Herb Hand, both of whom have since left to coach at Penn State.

The judge ordered that the victim’s name and any images of her from the night in question be redacted to protect her identity, which was initially included in the indictment. The Associated Press and many other organizations generally do not identify victims of sexual assault.

Perkins also issued an immediate stay of his order to give the city time to appeal it before the records are made public.

Other media organizations that joined in the lawsuit include: the Chattanooga Times Free Press, Knoxville News Sentinel, The Commercial Appeal in Memphis, WBIR-TV in Knoxville, and Nashville stations WTVF-TV Channel 5, WSMV-TV Channel 4 and WZTV-TV Fox 17. The Tennessee Coalition for Open Government and the Tennessee Associated Press Broadcasters also made up the coalition filing the lawsuit.

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