In a victory for open government, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that police investigation records are public documents once a suspect’s criminal trial concludes.
The court ruled 5-1 that most of the records sought by the Ohio Innocence Project from Columbus police since 2013 must be turned over.
The decision will likely reverse a practice by police departments across Ohio to withhold investigative records until all potential proceedings are exhausted or the defendant dies.
The court said that under Ohio’s open record laws, the lawyer requesting defendant Adam Saleh’s file from Columbus police “had a clear legal right to the requested records and that respondents had a clear legal duty to provide the records,” said Justice Paul Pfeifer, writing for the majority.
Ohio Innocence Project Director Mark Godsey called it a huge win for justice.
“When we first started investigating post-conviction cases in Ohio in 2003, the police regularly turned over files to us in response to public records request. By about 2010, after we had used those records to exonerate a number of people, many police departments started stonewalling us, which made it difficult to investigate claims of innocence. This ruling will go a long way to helping us correct injustices,” Godsey said. “And it is a huge win for transparency in Ohio.”
Dennis Hetzel, executive director of the Ohio Newspaper Association, said: “It’s an important, long-sought ruling to ensure that potentially exonerating evidence can’t be withheld until after the defendant is dead. The Ohio Coalition for Open Government is proud to have supported the appeal in this case.”
The Ohio Innocence Project, based at the University of Cincinnati law school, investigates and litigates cases of wrongful conviction of Ohio prisoners. To date, it has helped free 23 people. Before accepting a case, the Innocence Project investigates claims of innocence — often using police records — to determine whether the defendant merits assistance.
In 2007, Saleh, 30, was sentenced to 38 years to life in prison for the murder, kidnapping and attempted rape of aspiring model Julie Popovich, 20.
Saleh was seen leaving a bar with Popovich shortly before she disappeared, made cellphone calls that night within a mile of where her body was discovered and wrote letters to people trying to set up phony alibis, Franklin County Prosecutor Ron O’Brien has said, arguing the evidence against Saleh was overwhelming.
Saleh lost an appeal and had no pending proceedings in 2013 when the Innocence Project asked the Columbus Division of Police for records on Saleh’s case. Columbus rejected the records request, citing a 1994 court case that allows the withholding of specific investigatory work product.
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.
Martin Yant, a Columbus-based private investigator and former journalist who investigates claims of wrongful conviction, said: “Anyone who believes in justice should be satisfied with this ruling because it provides for transparency in the most important types of investigations where there are questions about guilt…When a case is over and it is no longer under appeal, what is wrong with going back and taking a second look? We have proven time and time again that mistakes are made.”
In another ruling released Wednesday, the Ohio Supreme Court said crime victims can file civil lawsuits based on most criminal acts, even when financial compensation isn’t authorized by law.