The refusal of Columbus police to release records underlying closed criminal cases could keep the innocent in prison and the true killers walking the streets, the Ohio Supreme Court was told Wednesday.
Past court decisions on which Columbus police rely to deny records should be overturned because a 2010 change in criminal discovery rules gave defendants expanded access to records held by police and prosecutors, Columbus lawyer Fred Gittes argued.
Gittes represents Donald Caster, an Innocence Project lawyer who claims that police violated public-records laws by refusing to release records in the case of Adam Saleh, who was convicted of the 2005 murder of Julie Popovich, 20, of Reynoldsburg.
Columbus police refused to release the case file, arguing that court decisions forbid the release of records as long as defendants have potential appeals, which generally can be filed anytime. Defendants also must use discovery rules, rather than records laws, to obtain records in their cases.
The Innocence Project, private investigators, journalists and others have an interest in obtaining criminal case files, with their work sometimes freeing the wrongly convicted or identifying true perpetrators, Gittes said.
“If you are in jail, you cannot get records unless you are freed … or dead,” Gittes said. “Until 2010, Columbus gave full public-records disclosure; suddenly a steel door came down … and now we can’t get any information out of Columbus.”
The justices, as part of their program to take oral-argument hearings on cases on the road, heard the police-files arguments before students in the gymnasium of Meigs High School near Pomeroy on the Ohio River.
Paula Lloyd, a lawyer representing the city of Columbus and Police Chief Kim Jacobs, faced repeated questioning by the justices in arguing that the city believes criminal case records cannot be released so long as defendants can appeal their convictions, even decades later.
Except for saying that police records could perhaps be made public once an inmate is released from prison, she endured justices’ questions on when in the judicial process records should be released.
“Your argument seems ridiculous,” Justice Paul E. Pfeifer told Lloyd.
Gittes stressed that exemptions to the public-records act, such as those protecting confidential informants, still could be used to withhold sensitive information, but that Columbus police are issuing blanket denials for case files. The Dispatch also has been denied police records in murder cases.
The Innocence Project does not represent Saleh, who is 28 and serving 38 years in prison, but it wants to review his police case file to assess his claim that he was wrongly convicted on the basis of false testimony by jailhouse informants that he had indicated he killed Popovich.