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Columbus police illegally withheld public records, Ohio Supreme Court rules
By Randy Ludlow The Columbus Dispatch • Wednesday December 28, 2016 11:21 AM
Columbus police have illegally withheld some public records by refusing to release files on closed criminal cases, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled this morning.
The ruling overturns the police division’s practice since 2010 to refuse to release records in homicide and other high-profile cases to private investigators, reporters at The Dispatch and others.
The justices found that the city improperly relied on prior court rulings, with city officials arguing records could not be released as long as defendants still had potential appeals, which generally can be filed at any time. Such a practice, critics said, meant records were secret until defendants died or were freed from prison.
A lawyer for an Ohio Innocence Project attorney who filed the lawsuit against the city had argued that Columbus’ stance could keep the innocent in prison and true killers walking the streets since police case files could not be examined by third parties.
The justices split 4-1 on the ruling, with two concurring in part and dissenting in part. Most police investigatory records become public once a suspect’s trial concludes, the court said. Exceptions for records protecting confidential informants and specific law-enforcement investigative techniques remain in place.
“How long must a convicted defendant or a member of the public wait?” senior Justice Paul E. Pfefier wrote in the majority opinion. “We also should be concerned about the interests of justice."
“A defendant or member of the public can access potentially exonerating material concerning a defendant only after the defendant is dead. How did we get to this point?” he wrote.
The city had a clear legal obligation to provide records and, by ignoring the request, must pay attorney fees, court costs and $1,000 in damages, the court ruled.
Columbus lawyer Fred Gittes had argued that the past court decisions that Columbus police relied on to deny records were legally inoperative because a 2010 change in criminal discovery rules gave defendants expanded access to records held by police and prosecutors. They were concerned public records laws were being improperly used to obtain police records for convicted defendants.
"The court’s decision will help prevent innocent people from spending years in jail and get the actual criminals off the street and into prison where they belong," Gittes said. " The court made Ohio’s justice system better today. Ohioans owe a debt to the Ohio Innocence Project ..."
Gittes represented Donald Caster, an Ohio Innocence Project lawyer who said that police illegally refused to release records in the case of Adam Saleh, who was convicted of the 2005 murder of Julie Popovich, 20, of Reynoldsburg.
The Innocence Project does not represent Saleh, who is 29 and serving 38 years in prison, but wanted to review his police case file to assess his claim that he was wrongly convicted in 2007 on the basis of false testimony by jailhouse informants who said he indicated that he had killed Popovich.
Four inmates testified that Saleh said he strangled Popovich while trying to rape her. The body of the waitress and part-time model was found near Hoover Reservoir three weeks after she left a Short North bar with Saleh.