March 25, 2009 at 3:52 pm

Federal judge may release text messages

April 7 hearing will determine if information from city pagers will be released in civil lawsuit.

An attorney for relatives of slain exotic dancer Tamara Greene is seeking release of city text messages. )

DETROIT -- A federal magistrate judge is considering the release of thousands more text messages exchanged between former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, his former chief of staff Christine Beatty and other city officials.

The messages are those filed under seal in U.S. District Court in Detroit in connection with a lawsuit brought against the city, the former mayor, Beatty, and other defendants by the family of slain exotic dancer Tamara "Strawberry" Greene.

Greene, linked to a long rumored but never proven party at the mayor's Manoogian Mansion in the fall of 2002, was shot to death in Detroit in 2003. Her family alleges top city and police officials obstructed the investigation of her killing for political reasons. The defendants deny the allegations.

U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Whalen on Tuesday ordered lawyers to appear April 7 and show why Whalen should not give Norman Yatooma, the lawyer for Greene's family, all of the tens and possibly hundreds of thousands of text messages Yatooma requested in connection with the lawsuit.

SkyTel Corp., the city's former text messaging pager provider, submitted the text messages to the court under seal and Whalen has been combing through them to identify whether any are potentially relevant to the lawsuit.

But in his order, Whalen said there is "substantial overlap" between the texts he is reading and those recently made public by Wayne Circuit Judge Timothy Kenny after county prosecutors filed them in connection with criminal cases against Kilpatrick and Beatty.

"The public availability of the texts SkyTel has submitted to this court would appear to obviate the need for in camera review," Whalen said in his order.

Mayer Morganroth, a lawyer for Beatty, said Kenny released only a fraction of the text messages filed under seal in the Greene case and there is no reason for Whalen to order more messages released. "I don't know where this comes from -- it's out of the blue," Morganroth said. "It's strange."

Yatooma, who could not be reached, requested text messages exchanged between Kilpatrick, Beatty, and about 60 other city and police officials for nearly a two-year period between Aug. 1, 2002 and April 17, 2004. Whalen's order appears to propose the release of all of those messages.

It's not clear whether the text messages provided to Yatooma would remain subject to a protective order or whether Yatooma would be free to file them in open court. An order from Whalen to release the text messages would also be subject to approval by Chief U.S. District Judge Gerald E. Rosen, who is handling the case.

Whalen earlier scrutinized a smaller set of text messages sent or received by any city official holding a SkyTel pager on April 30, 2003 -- the day Greene was shot to death. He identified a handful of those messages as potentially relevant, but Rosen ruled that none of them met the threshold for admissibility in the lawsuit and said Yatooma would not be permitted to see them.

Morganroth said the U.S. Stored Communications Act is more protective of the privacy of text messages in civil cases, such as the Greene case, than in criminal cases such as those that sent both Kilpatrick and Beatty to jail on obstruction of justice and perjury related charges. On April 7, "we'll show him why they shouldn't be released," he said.

Witnesses have come forward in the Greene case to say they saw a commotion at a Detroit hospital and an injured dancer but none has put a specific date on the legendary party.

You can reach Paul Egan at (313) 222-2069 or pegan@detnews.com">pegan@detnews.com.