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Writing Biography/history on a deceased individual, can I use use public records from, police, court, psychiatric reports?

Dayton, OH |

A dear friend of mine was raped/murdered 1975. In researching the case I find the murderer/rapist, convictions and court records w/psych reports/evaluations. Not sure if I will write memoir, biography..... Most likely would never be penned for profit. Can I include these documents in my writing, as they are all public documents and the murderer/rapist died in 2001? I am not sure if these records/reports would have a restriction for publishing or posting. Also not sure if I am allowed to reveal the names of Attorneys, Judges, Psychiatrists and if they may still be living.
Any info. greatly appreciated!



Attorney Answers 2

  1. Public records are exactly that, public, so you may use them as facts. Be careful not to add or subtract from the facts as it becomes your opinion and then you incur liability or worse, defamation.
    Yes, you may mention anything including the manes of the people acting and reported in the public records, subject to the previous admonition.
    When in doubt, consult an attorney, save yourself trouble.

    USPTO Registered Patent Attorney, Master of Intellectual Property law, MBA I am neither your attorney, nor my answers or comments in create an attorney-client relationship with you. You may accept or disregard my free advice in at your own risk. I am a Patent Attorney, admitted to the USPTO and to the Florida Bar.

  2. You should be able to use these public records, and disclose the names of attorneys, judges, jurors, psychiatrists and others involved in the case-----so long as (a) there is no pre-existing court order or law limiting disclosure of these names or records, and (b) the dislosures you make are truthful and accurate. Some states have enacted laws that limit how public records can be used, or preclude disclosure of the identity of persons who appear in public records---the classic example of this is disclosure of the identity of undercover police officers. Even if the name or a photograph of the undercover officer appears in the record of the trial, there may be restrictions on further publication or dissemination of the photograph or name of the undercover officer. It also may be illegal to distort, mischaracterize, misrepresent or alter "doctor" public records. Thus, while you should presume that you are free to use public records and disclose the names, it probably is wortwhile to retain counsel to check to determine whether there are any court orders or state law restrictions that might preclude you from doing so and/or limit the manner in which you use the information. And it probably is worthwhile to request that your counsel review the file to make sure that your portrayl of public records does not distort, mischaracterize or misrepresent them.

    You should know that one of the prime sources for true and fiction crime magazines and novels has been local police records, I have a cousin who is in his 90's who used write a famous "true story" detective magazine, which he would base on actual police files. He churned out this magazine monthly for more than 40 years, and he would befriend detectives and police officers in various small towns around the midwestern United States who would direct him to the interesting cases. In more than 40 years of writing these magazines, he never once ran into a legal problem because of his use of information from the public files. Nonetheless, his publisher had legal counsel on staff and every story was carefully reviewed with legal counsel to make sure there were no unusual circumstances that might cause a problem. And it was common for legal counsel for the publisher to insist on changes in the draft manuscripts to avoid potential legal liability. Moreover, I am informed that once or twice a year, my cousin would be forced to "kill" a story because of concerns that legal problems could arise if the information in the public files was used and widely disseminated. It takes a great deal of experience and judgment for a lawyer to advise clients about how to avoid getting in trouble when relying on public records and incorporating them into articles or books---and certainly anyone who writes a biography or other work based on such public records should work closely with IP counsel.