By CARRIE ANTLFINGER
MILWAUKEE (AP) – The La Crosse Tribune is not entitled to most of the records it requested related to the release of a man convicted of killing three people at a western Wisconsin church in 1985, according to a state appeals court decision Thursday.
Bryan Stanley was found not guilty by reason of mental disease in the deaths of custodian William Hammes, the Rev. John Rossiter and lay minister Ferdinand Roth at St. Patrick’s Church in Onalaska in 1985. Stanley, who suffered from psychosis, was angry the priest was allowing girls to give Scripture readings during Mass.
He was committed indefinitely to a state psychiatric hospital in Madison but was released in 2009. He was sent back this week after suffering thoughts that caused him “discomfort and anxiety,” which violated his release conditions.
In 2009, a La Crosse County judge ordered those conditions sealed. The newspaper filed an open records request for the information, including Stanley’s address, release date and monitoring provisions. The judge denied that, citing mental health laws, so the newspaper appealed.
The 4th District Court of Appeals ruled Thursday, again citing mental health laws, that the newspaper can get only the original order of placement with the address and phone number redacted. The decision noted that Stanley’s release date was in the document but the rest of the contents are unclear, said the newspaper’s attorney James Birnbaum.
Birnbaum said the newspaper disagrees that those records are treatment records, therefore protected by mental health laws. They are judicial records, subject to open records laws, he said.
“It’s a request for public records, which has some very significant public safety consequences,” he said.
The court had also acknowledged that when a judge denies a public record request, there’s no process to force the judge to do otherwise, Birnbaum said.
“Our position is that can’t be what the Legislature intended,” he said. “It would be wrong. They provide a right and then no way to enforce it? We are talking about public rights here.”
He said he plans to speak with his client to determine their next step, which could include taking the case to the Wisconsin Supreme Court and approaching the Legislature for a change in law about how courts handle open records requests. The appeals court had already asked the state Supreme Court look at the case but that court refused, wanting to hear the appeals court decision first.
Stanley’s attorney, Kristin Kerschensteiner, said the ruling clarifies that the records are private.
“This makes this secure relationship better and affirms it is in fact a treatment relationship that requires confidentiality,” she said.