Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray said Monday she will decide in the coming days whether the law enforcement photographs showing the suicide of a Clinton White House insider should be exempt from the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act.
Mark Middleton's family members said it is necessary to block the photos' release to protect their privacy by preventing them from ever being published.
Middleton, a married father of daughters ages 18 and 20, died by suicide last month in Perry County. Said to be a close friend of Bill Clinton, Middleton, 59, was a senior aide during Clinton's administration, working as a special assistant to the president and an assistant to the president's chief of staff.
Middleton, a lawyer, went on to be president of the investment firm MidCorp Capital and managing director of Middleton Heat and Air, which was founded by his father.
Ever since word got out of his death, "scandal mongers" on the Internet have subjected the Middleton family to an "unimaginable" and "devastating" campaign of "salacious and scurrilous" speculative slander about Middleton's death, attorney Byron Walker with the Rose Law Firm told the judge.
"None of these posts have any basis in truth," Walker said. "Online tabloid bloggers are attempting to profit from Mr. Middleton's death."
Middleton's brother Larry and widow Rhea have brought suit against Perry County Sheriff Scott Montgomery and Coroner Bill Greene to prevent the "graphic" photographs of his death from being made public, absent a court order. With no objection from officials, the sides proposed an agreement which would shield pictures of his body from disclosure under open-records law.
But it was an arrangement the judge said she was not entirely comfortable with, telling the parties they were asking her to speculate on the possible public interest in photographs not yet subject to the state's Freedom of Information Act, due to the ongoing death probe, an investigation the sheriff said might take months because of testing at the state Crime Laboratory.
Further, Gray questioned whether the law would allow her to make such a ruling given there's no opposing side to challenge the family's claim they have privacy rights whichshould take preference over any public interests.
"I don't have anyone to advocate for the public," Gray said.
Both Walker, the family lawyer, and Jason Owens, the attorney representing the sheriff and coroner, said the Freedom of Information Act allows the kind of prohibition the Middleton family is seeking. They also urged the judge to consider how no news agency has come forward to join the lawsuit or seek the photographs as evidence of little to no real public interest.
Walker said the family is not asking for the judge to absolutely remove the photographs from public disclosure. He told the judge the family wants her to seal the pictures with the requirement that anyone who would want them must come to court to show why their interest in obtaining the photos outweighs the family's privacy interest in keeping them secret.
Testifying on behalf of the family, Larry Middleton, 61, told the judge the family accepts the suicide finding, saying his brother had been battling depression with medical treatment for some time, but his condition had worsened over the five months before he died. The family had worried he was at risk, Middleton testified.
Middleton said the family was "shocked" by conspiracy theories posted online beginning the day after the funeral, stating his brother's death has been "sensationalized."
"It was untruthful in a way that harmed the family," he said. "It was very disruptive of our grieving process."
The Middleton daughters have been "pursued" by Internet sources who have used social media, including Instagram, to contact them about their father's death and taken their photographs to illustrate their online writings, Middleton said, causing them to have safety concerns.
"They wanted to know if they're safe from people in pursuit," an emotional Middleton told the judge.
He did not name the online sources, stating that one of them was a British tabloid, well-known for its sensationalist tendencies. They are "profiteering" and "unaccountable," Middleton said, predicting the photographs would end up on the Internet if they are ever made public.
"Stand up for the privacy of our family and those children who have no voice," he said, his voice breaking.
The proceedings included an apology to the family from the sheriff, who said he disclosed the nature of Mark Middleton's death to an online blogger who had contacted his office.
He said he should not have said anything due to the ongoing investigation and no further information than the onedisclosure has been released. He told the judgehe has received more than one request for information, citing the Freedom of Information Act, but has been able to reject them all because the probe is ongoing.