COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — The Ohio Supreme Court is deciding whether police departments can shield the complete files of a long-closed criminal case until all chance of appeals are exhausted, usually because the defendant is dead.
A public records lawsuit contends that the position taken by the Columbus Police Department and backed by the local prosecutor is part of a trend around the state of agencies refusing to release such records.
The court, holding a special session in Meigs County in southern Ohio, heard from both sides Wednesday. A decision isn't expected for months.
At issue is an attempt by the Ohio Innocence Project to review the case of a man sentenced to 38 years in prison for killing a woman in 2005. The project doesn't represent defendant Adam Saleh but wants to review the records, which Saleh alleges will bolster his claim that he didn't do it.
Evidence released through public records has resulted in numerous exonerations of wrongfully convicted inmates, open records attorney Fred Gittes argued in a filing last June.
"These exonerations have not weakened our system of justice; they have strengthened it, by providing another device for correcting the unavoidable missteps of a system that can never attain perfection, but should always strive for it," Gittes said.
The lawsuit argued that changes in state Supreme Court evidence rules have addressed concerns raised by older court rulings regarding the release of case files. The lawsuit wants the court to order Columbus to make the records immediately available.
A 2000 appeals court ruling said police aren't obligated to release the files without proof that no further appeals are possible, "e.g., the defendant's death."
Police departments and their records divisions don't know all the facts behind investigative files, including what witnesses might have been promised confidentiality, Paula Lloyd, an assistant Columbus city attorney, wrote in a court filing last July.
Open records law "must be balanced against the compelling need to let police investigators do their jobs effectively," Lloyd said.
Because Saleh's conviction was based in part on the testimony of several jailhouse informants, Saleh contends that a full review of the case could exonerate him, according to the lawsuit.
Several justices seemed skeptical of Lloyd's arguments on behalf of Columbus police.
"Your argument just seems ridiculous at this point," Justice Paul Pfeifer told Lloyd Wednesday. "There's no end in view, they're always protected."
Lloyd said it's possible the records could be available if a defendant was released from prison.
Justice Maureen O'Connor expressed frustration with Gittes' arguments, saying she couldn't pin him down on what information — such as a confidential witness statement — would or wouldn't be released.
Gittes said he just wants criminal case files to be subject to the open records law, which includes exceptions for the release of certain documents.
Ohio is not alone in restricting the release of police records, but many states, including Florida, Georgia and Idaho, generally require the release of closed files.
Saleh, 29, was convicted in the death of aspiring model Julie Popovich, last seen leaving a bar near the Ohio State University campus in August 2005. The skeletal remains of the 20-year-old woman were found three weeks later in suburban Westerville.
Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O'Brien has said that suggesting Saleh is innocent is a "gross misrepresentation" of the evidence against him.
Andrew Welsh-Huggins can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/awhcolumbus. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/andrew-welsh-huggins
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