When researching an old murder court case, a simple request for the relevant files may be all you need. With a few exceptions, murder and other criminal cases are public records, so you have a right to see them. To identify which record to ask for may require advance research: you can't find the records unless you have some basic information about the case.
Gathering Your Facts
There are several different ways to look up an old case in court databases and files, such as using the defendant's name or the case number assigned to the court proceedings. If, say, all you know is the victim's name, that's not enough. A Google search of the name or looking up old newspapers from the time of the murder may give you enough information to file a usable request.
There's no central U.S. database of murder trials or any other court records, so you'll also need to know which court to contact. In California, for example, each county keeps its own records of criminal cases; if there are multiple court branches, the main criminal court maintains a master index. If the murder was a federal case, you'll have to turn to the local U.S. district court, which has a separate records system.
Going to Court
Different courts have different computer systems, different amounts of online information and different ways to look up cases. Once you're ready to find the records, contact the court or visit its website to find out the procedure.
If the court records are online, you can access them from your computer, for example, by entering the defendant's name. Some systems charge for that. If the information isn't online, visit the courthouse. The court's own computers may have more material. Once you know the case number, use that to ask for all the court records on the murder. If you want copies of the records, the court may charge you a fee.
When the Court Says No
Some records won't be available, even if you have the case number. If the defendant was a juvenile, for instance, she may request that the court seal the record after she turns 18. Once the case is sealed, you lose your right to access the relevant material. The exact rules on the types of cases that can be sealed vary from state to state.
Sometimes a court staffer may simply refuse to provide the records. This can happen even if there are no legal grounds for saying no. You can try coming back a different day and seeing if a different staffer will give you a yes instead of a no.
If the court won't budge and you don't think their reason is valid, look up your state's laws on records access, often called a Public Records or Open Records law. File a formal request for the case files, using the procedure outlined in the law. If you get a no again, it should at least come with an explanation for the refusal.
Fraser Sherman has written about bankruptcy law, real estate law, tax law, business law and several other categories. He lives in Durham NC with his awesome wife and two wonderful dogs. His website is frasersherman.com