The Madison Police Department is appealing a court ruling upholing an order by the state’s Freedom of Information Commission that the department release all records — except signed witness statements — related to the unsolved murder of Barbara Beach Hamburg. Her death in 2010 was the subject of an HBO true crime documentary series produced by her son Madison Hamburg.
In a meeting of the town’s Board of Police Commissioners on Thursday evening, Police Chief John Drumm said that if the courts ultimately ruled in favor of releasing the records, it could create a precedent that would affect police investigations across the state.
“That means that if you have a victim of a crime in your household tomorrow, they could start [submitting Freedom of Information Requests for] each and every single day in the investigation,” said Drumm.
Drumm told commissioners that a number of agencies, including the Madison Police Department, had already released information about the case, and that releasing further evidence could compromise the ongoing investigation.
“We work on this case weekly, we have a state’s attorney assigned to us who works on this weekly. It would not be in the interest of our own investigation to release it any further,” said Drumm.
According to David Schulz, a lawyer representing the plaintiff, the department was only withholding the information on the off chance that new information about the case should come to light, and that there really was not an ongoing investigation.
“The case isn’t closed. But they have had no new leads for years,” he said. “They’ve done multiple cold case reviews. The people in the State’s Attorney’s office who oversee the cold case reviews agreed with them that there were no new leads to follow. There was no stone they had left unturned.”
A cold case?
The television series, Murder on Middle Beach, documents the story of Madison Hamburg’s search for the story behind his mother’s murder. The four-part series was released at the end of 2020.
In October of 2019, Anike Neimeyer, the producer of Murder on Middle Beach, submitted a FOI request to the Madison Police Department on behalf of herself and Madison Hamburg requesting records of the case. The department denied the request, and Neimeyer appealed to the state Freedom of Information Commission, according to a Memorandum of Decision from the Superior Court in New Britain.
In August 2020, the Freedom of Information Commission ruled that the Madison Police Department needed to release the requested records, including investigatory records, interrogation recordings, and crime scene recordings, including photos and videos, with the exception of signed witness statements. The case was then brought to trial in the Superior Court of New Britain, which last month upheld the Freedom of Information Commission’s ruling.
“It is difficult to understand how denying public access to criminal files in perpetuity serves the public interest in solving crimes and bringing perpetrators to justice,” wrote Judge Daniel Klau in his decision. “Moreover, allowing the public to access cold case files after an appropriate period of time is far more likely to improve the odds of an arrest and successful prosecution than it is to prejudice that outcome.”
Schulz echoed the judge’s world, noting that his clients planned to use the information as part of a documentary.
“Allowing that type of information to come out may be more likely to help them solve the crime [rather] than keeping everything secret. So I’m not quite sure why they’re resistant,” he said.
Drumm, however, told CT Examiner that his reasoning for appealing the decision was two-fold: the potential of damaging what he said were ongoing efforts by the department to solve the case, and the need to protect the interests of the family.
“It’s something that really has to work its way through the court,” he told CT Examiner. “We certainly don’t want to give a heads-up or give away some information that only somebody who was at the scene or perpetrated the crime would know.”
He said it was also important to preserve the rights of victims and family members, who he said he didn’t believe would want information released while police officers were still working on their case.
“We also have to honor the victims and their families. We have to maintain the integrity for them,” he said.
The Madison Department of Police filed an appeal on September 2.
“The only way we can have oversight.”
According to Schulz, the Madison Police Department “took a completely inappropriate approach” to deciding which documents to release.
“They didn’t make any efforts to review their files to see what could be released, because it was already known, for example,” Schulz told CT Examiner. Drumm told CT Examiner that the Police Department had gone through all the files relevant to the case.
Schulz said the department had provided two boxes of information about the case, but that they were still missing key documents, including witness statements, notes, computer records and telephone records.
Drumm told commissioners he believed plaintiffs were led to ask the Madison Police Department for additional records after obtaining copies of evidence collected by other state agencies who were assisting on the case, such as the Connecticut State Police, who Drumm said processed evidence at their crime lab.
“We now know they have that information, which led them to ask additional questions of us of information that we had not shared with the general public,” Drumm told commissioners, adding that the department needed to retain the information to complete its investigation.
“I have to do my best … to preserve what I have in that investigation so that I can charge the person or persons with the murder,” said Drumm.
Schulz said that the plaintiffs would be thrilled if the police were able to solve the crime, but he said that this wasn’t a reason to keep a case open forever.
“Then, the public would never have any way of knowing whether [the police] were doing their job appropriately,” said Schulz. “The only way we can have oversight or accountability for law enforcement is to know what they’re doing.”
Drumm said in the meeting that, along with the request from Madison Hamburg and Neimeyer, the department had received three other requests from media outlets from “the other coast” for the full case files. He also said that he had new evidence on the case that he did not want to share.
“I can’t. It would compromise the case investigation.” he said.
“A tremendous legal bill”
Police Commission Chair Ed Downing warned at the meeting that the appeal could require “significant legal resources” that could be costly for the Town of Madison. He said the Board of Selectmen would have to determine how much the town was willing to spend on the lawsuit.
Downing expressed hope that state agencies would take up the case and relieve the town of a potentially significant financial burden appealing the case.
Drumm also said that he hoped the Chief State’s Attorney’s Office and that Attorney General William Tong’s Office would file amicus briefs on their behalf.
“This may be a long journey, and that may cost a lot of money … I would appreciate it if the Attorney General’s Office would take it up, because it’s in the interest of law enforcement state-wide, not just the Town of Madison,” Drumm told commissioners.
“I’m hoping that this comes through sooner than later so that the town can hopefully work with these two other agencies and not foot a tremendous legal bill,” he added.
Dowling said the Board of Police Commissioners and the Board of Selectmen were working on setting up a joint meeting, and that the lawsuit would be a topic of discussion for the meeting.
Alaine Griffin, director of communications in the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney said that the department had no comment at this time.
Elizabeth Benton, communications director for the Attorney General’s Office, said the office was not involved in the case.
A spokesperson for the Connecticut State Police Public Information Office said the State Police had not released any evidence regarding the murder of Barbara Hamburg.