SPLC spotlights stories that make a difference

Public-records laws can open up a world of discoveries, rewarding persistent journalists like those in Marcy Burstiner's reporting class at California's Humboldt State University.

As a class project, Burstiner's students took on the case of 25-year-old James Lee Peters, who hanged himself in the Humboldt County Jail while awaiting a long-delayed transfer to a state mental health facility. The students found that Peters' predicament was frustratingly common.

The judge and prosecutor in Peters' case bemoaned the lack of adequate mental health programs -- yet no one wanted to talk on the record. So Burstiner's students turned to the California Public Records Act: for police reports, for jail logs, and -- most revealingly -- for the closed investigative file of the district attorney's review of Peters' death.

These documents spoke for Peters, vividly, and they told an important story that exemplifies the best of student journalism.

The work of these Humboldt students, and Burstiner's tips on using open records laws, are available here. SPLC will be highlighting other such creative uses of legal tools to gather stories that make a difference. We invite your submissions. Contact us at splc@splc.org.

Fall 2008, reports