Death-row inmate loses FOIA lawsuit against FBI

Monday, November 26, 2012

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of the FBI’s decision to redact information from records sought under the Freedom of Information Act by a Tennessee death-row inmate.

Inmate Michael Dale Rimmer sued the agency over records relating to an investigation they conducted into the 1997 death of a Memphis motel clerk. In 1998, Rimmer was convicted and sentenced to death for the murder of the clerk, Ricci Lynn Ellsworth.

During the joint investigation by the FBI and Memphis police into Ellsworth’s death, a witness told the FBI that he had seen two white males taking money from the motel cash register with blood on their hands on the night that Ellsworth disappeared, according to court records.

The descriptions of the men did not match Rimmer’s physical appearance. FBI agents twice showed the witness a photo lineup with Rimmer’s picture, but the witness twice identified another man that he said he saw at the motel that night, according to court records.

According to last week’s 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals opinion, the FBI turned this information on the photo lineups over to the Memphis police, but Rimmer said he learned of this information only after his conviction.

He filed a FOIA request for the FBI’s files and the FBI eventually released 786 pages, but Rimmer disputes redactions made on a majority of the pages. The FBI cited exemptions that included records that if disclosed would be an invasion of personal privacy and law enforcement records that would disclose the identity of a confidential source.

A district court judge viewed un-redacted versions of the FBI’s records and granted a summary judgment in favor of the FBI.

The 6th Circuit said in an opinion released Nov. 21 that the redacted information is protected under FOIA exemptions.

The three-judge panel of the federal appeals court said that Rimmer didn’t prove there was a significant public interest that would outweigh the invasion of privacy of the people who were involved in the FBI investigation.

“Rimmer acknowledges that he is already in possession of most of the information that he now seeks,” the opinion said. “Even in the few isolated instances where Rimmer might not know exactly to whom a redaction referred, exposure of this information would not help the public to discern whether the FBI was acting corruptly.”

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