The family of a 5-year-old girl who was badly shocked when she plugged a lamp into the wall of her D.C. Housing Authority home might get a new trial after the District's highest court ruled DCHA withheld documents during the original trial and then refused to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request.
The D.C. Court of Appeals has sent the lawsuit back to Superior Court, where a judge will determine if the family gets a new trial.
The case dates back to September 2002, when the 5-year-old girl was shocked and badly burned on her hands and arm. According to court records, the Anacostia home had repeatedly flooded. The family argued that DCHA was aware of the danger posed by the water-soaked walls, but failed to clean up the mess.
During the trial, the family requested copies of the shock incident reports, but DCHA claimed they didn't exist, court documents said. After the family lost the lawsuit, members filed a Freedom of Information Act request demanding DCHA release the incident reports and other documents related to the home's flooding.
But DCHA claimed the documents were privileged and refused to release them, even after the mayor's office demanded it do so. It wasn't until 2009, seven years after the child was shocked, that Superior Court finally forced DCHA to release the documents. And it wasn't until Thursday that the Court of Appeals ordered Superior Court to reconsider retrying the case after it reviews those documents to determine how they might have influenced the original jury.
"Sometimes in cases like these, the public never learns the truth," said D.C. Councilwoman Mary Cheh. "These agencies are [benefiting from] the wall of silence they erect."
Cheh said "this is exactly why we need a neutral broker to make decisions and find reasons and justification for releasing documents."
The Ward 3 councilwoman has proposed legislation that would create an independent agency to facilitate the disclosure of records. The Fenty administration, which was not originally involved in this case, has said that Cheh's proposal isn't necessary because the administration is creating an electronic system that will make it easier to submit and track FOIA requests.