In Massachusetts, it is usually public information when someone is convicted of a criminal offense, or even has a criminal court appearance and disposition. In most instances, with juvenile cases being an exception, a person's criminal record is publicly available to anyone who wants to know their criminal history. In order to hide a criminal record, the person must wait a period of 5 to 10 years, and request to have their records sealed. However, the request to seal records prior to any court disposition is becoming increasingly common.
News organizations and First Amendment rights activists are fighting the Massachusetts courts to keep the judicial system open and transparent. According to the Associated Press, Massachusetts judges are increasingly sealing court documents, prompting costly and lengthy legal confrontations to gain access to traditionally public information.
In the Aaron Hernandez murder trial, the judge sealed hundreds of pages of documents related to the Patriots' 2013 arrest. In the ongoing federal terrorism trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, a number of legal briefs and decisions have been sealed by the judge in that case. In these cases, the defense lawyers, and judges found that the release of information could hurt their client's rights to a fair trial. News organizations have challenged those and similar rulings, and in some cases, they have succeeded.
The Cape Cod Times challenged the court's decision to seal records in the Loya case. Coast Guardsman Adrian T. Loya is accused of the murder of Lisa A. Trubnikova, and injuring her spouse Anna Trubnikova as well as Bourne Police Patrolman, Jared P. MacDonald. Falmouth District Court Judge Michael C. Creedon initially sealed court records surrounding the February 5th incident, at the request of Loya's defense attorney.
Local media filed a motion to unseal the records, arguing that Massachusetts law creates a presumption that court records are to be open. The judge then unsealed the records, resulting in the release of search warrants and evidence including a portable recording device which Loya allegedly wore on his chest to record the murder of Trubnikova.
Many news outlets are fighting for access to trial information in the Boston Marathon bombing case, including witness and exhibit lists. Those records were sealed by the judge where they are normally made public. According to the news organizations, "the information contained in the lists...is not by its nature private since all the exhibits are presumptively public and all of the witnesses will testify in open court."
Matthew Segal, with the Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union says Massachusetts has one of the weakest public-records laws in the country. In addition, there has been a greater tendency towards secrecy in all areas of the government, in part due to post-September 11th national security concerns.
Although not all Judges are so willing to seal sensitive records. In the Philip Chism case, the judge denied defense lawyers' requests to seal Chism's videotaped police confession. In his decision, Judge Lowy wrote, "The First Amendment was not intended to make life easy." He stated that "providing an unobstructed view of the proceedings, therefore, remains at the core of protecting ordered liberty, the rule of law, and ultimately not just democracy, but constitutional democracy itself."