Moss, Sessoms spar over family’s access to police records after death

Virginia Beach Mayor Will Sessoms suggested the City Council erase an item from its 2016 legislative request package that would allow Virginians to obtain police records about an immediate family member’s suicide.

The item, requested by Councilman John Moss, asks that such records be released within 60 days of a request by a parent, spouse or adult child, unless there’s suspicion the death was not suicide. Moss’ request follows a case in which a father, Kevin McCarthy, took the city to court after it denied his requests for police records about the death of his son, U.S. Navy Lt. Sean McCarthy.

The proposal asks the General Assembly to reconsider and limit the discretion it grants government authorities to release such records under the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

The city has successfully defended in Circuit Court its decision to not release the documents.

“Basically, they’re not going to legislate that,” Sessoms told Moss at a council meeting Tuesday.

Sessoms then invited other councilmembers to sign a letter saying Moss’ item should be scratched.

None had signed as of late Wednesday.

Sessoms said in an interview Thursday that there “might be 10” additions to his letter soon. That would mean Moss’ item is unlikely to pass the Council vote later this fall on its legislative package.

“I suffer under no delusion that it will pass,” Moss said in an email. “But I am working directly with some members of the General Assembly. This is one of those issues that may take several years to get traction.”

McCarthy’s appeal in his quest to learn more about his son’s death is pending before the Supreme Court of Virginia, and his lawyer said it could be months before that court makes a decision.

Unlike Moss’ approach, McCarthy and his lawyer, Kevin Martingayle, are not seeking to limit the authorities’ discretion to release documents. Instead, they want to change what they say is the Virginia Beach Police Department’s “unwritten, blanket” policy of denial.

If they lose at the state Supreme Court, Martingayle said Thursday, he hoped to seek change from the council or General Assembly.

In the letter, Sessoms wrote that Beach Police Chief Jim Cervera “has major concerns” that releasing case information would “jeopardize the privacy of individuals mentioned or depicted,” because the documents contain the following:

  • “Name, date of birth and social security number of all parties interviewed by the investigators.
  • Home and work addresses of everyone mentioned in the investigative file.
  • Statements of personal relationships.
  • Evidence of a sensitive notion and pertinent to the case should it become necessary to reopen the investigation.
  • Often graphic detail and images of evidence at the scene, including the manner of death and injuries sustained during the commission of the crime.”

Redacting such information would not be enough to hide identities, the letter said. It also said police would rather talk with relatives about a case — as they offered to do with McCarthy and his personal investigator — than share investigative case files.

The letter also said case documents can be graphic and hard to keep out of the public domain once released.

At the council meeting Tuesday, Sessoms asked Moss to speak with the police chief so he would understand the city’s position.

Moss told Sessoms he already does.

“I also understand what the people’s rights are,” Moss replied. “And they should take precedent over government.”

Reporter Judah Taylor can be reached at (757) 490-2750 or Judah@southsidedaily.com.

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