Police photos of the remains of a former Clinton White House insider, presumed to have killed himself, will be withheld from the public unless someone can come up with a good reason why the photos should be revealed, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Alice Gray has ruled.
The four-page order, released Tuesday, comes at the request of the wife and brother of 59-year-old Mark Middleton whose May 7 death in Perry County drew the attention of some news media and conspiracy theorists.
Rhea Middleton and Larry Middleton sued to block release of the pictures, complaining they have been harassed by inquiries, fearing disclosure would result in the pictures being published. The judge ruled the privacy interests of the family outweigh any public interest in disclosing the pictures.
"The Court finds that since Mr. Middleton's death, the Middletons have been harassed by individuals with outlandish, hurtful, unsubstantiated, and offensive conspiracy theories regarding Mr. Middleton, his death, and his family, which have caused the Middletons immense harm and anguish," Gray's order states.
The ruling has a provision that requires anyone who wants to see the pictures to petition the court to show why making the photos public would benefit the public.
"Specifically, no citizen of Arkansas has established a public interest that would be advanced by disclosure of the [photos] and, thus, no citizen of Arkansas has shown how disclosure ... would advance any public interest," the ruling states. "Additionally, because unwarranted release of the [pictures] would cause the Middletons to suffer embarrassment and harassment, the Court finds they are likely to suffer irreparable injury. As the United States Supreme Court noted, once the Media Content is released to the public, it belongs to the public, and there is no avenue to repair the full harm the Middletons would suffer upon its disclosure."
In a letter to the judge from its attorney John Tull, the Arkansas Press Association endorsed the ruling as "appropriate" balance between the public interest in the investigation into Middleton's death and the privacy interests of the family as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court, given that the ruling does not prevent the disclosure of the official findings of the investigation, and allows for interested parties to petition the court to obtain access to the photos.
Middleton's relatives say they accept the preliminary conclusion that Middleton killed himself, stating Middleton was being treated for depression and they feared at the time he might harm himself.
Perry County Sheriff Scott Montgomery said the death appears to be suicide, but a formal conclusion is likely weeks away because of evidence testing. Without the judge's order, the pictures could have been subject to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act at the official conclusion of the investigation.
A close friend of Bill Clinton, Middleton 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.
Middleton's fundraising efforts for Clinton came under Congressional scrutiny, and his access to the White House was restricted after he left to work in the private sector and apparently tried to maintain the appearance of a connection to the White House to impress business clients, according to media reports in the 1990s.