How the Spotlight Team got inside Massachusetts’ secret court system
There’s an obvious obstacle to reporting on the inner workings of Massachusetts’ “secret court” system: It’s secret.
The files and hearings are closed to the public. Court officials frequently refuse to confirm or deny the existence of the cases, unless clerks decide to issue charges after a private hearing. One defense attorney said he’s even had trouble obtaining information about hearings involving his own clients.
The Spotlight Team started with some basic statistics provided by the court that shed light on the system. Those figures showed that some clerks' offices were far more likely to issue charges than others. The data also showed that clerks frequently opted not to issue charges, even after finding there was enough evidence to do so.
But we needed specific details about the thousands of criminal cases that disappear each year in these secret hearings.
That information wasn’t going to come from the courts, which hold the secret show cause hearings. So we came up with another approach: If the courts are blocking the way, why not turn to the police?
Police are typically the ones who request charges, and are often frustrated when they are not issued. So we contacted dozens of police departments across the state and asked for a list of cases that they had sent to court for closed-door “show cause” sessions.
Some police departments charged exorbitant amounts for the information. Brookline police said they couldn’t identify which cases went to private hearings so instead offered to provide every incident report from 2017 at a price of more than $12,000. (We declined.)
Other departments sent us police reports about incidents that went to secret court, or lengthy lists of all the cases they filed. The State Police, for instance, provided a spreadsheet with more than 30,000 charges they had asked clerk magistrates to approve. All we had to do was eliminate the cases that resulted in criminal prosecution and, by deduction, the remaining cases on the list would likely be the charges that clerks dropped in private sessions.
We criss-crossed the state to visit more than 30 courthouses to find out the outcomes of the police requests. We eventually looked up about 600 different cases, and verified with police and court officials when possible whether the cases made it out of clerks’ hearings.
Those 600 cases helped us answer questions about disparities in the system, including whether white defendants had more success obtaining private hearings compared to minority defendants. Our analysis suggested that white people had a slight advantage in getting access to secret court in the first place.
White defendants also appeared to have an edge in convincing clerks to reject charges, compared to minority defendants, according to court data that included the outcomes of tens of thousand of cases from the second half of 2017.
Attorneys who accompanied their clients to clerks’ hearings helped us understand how victims and defendants are treated, and provided details about what transpired inside the closed-door sessions. District attorneys also pointed us to a handful of cases where they had asked a judge to intervene after a clerk refused to issue charges. In addition, we followed up on some notable cases that had surfaced in the past.
Taken together, these approaches allowed the Spotlight Team to do something Globe reporters had talked about doing for years: Reveal the quality of justice that prevails in the darkest corner of the state’s judicial system.