Thursday, October 9, 2003

Records request argued

By Jordan Gentile
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - The Cincinnati Enquirer urged the Ohio Supreme Court on Wednesday to open court records from the trial of former Cincinnati police Officer Stephen Roach.

Hamilton County Municipal Court Judge Ralph Winkler sealed the records from view in November 2001, after Roach was acquitted of negligent homicide in the shooting of black teenager Timothy Thomasearlier that year. The killing sparked days of protest and riots.

Enquirer attorney John C. Greiner called the shooting a "notorious" event and said Winkler's order to seal the records violated the public's right to information of social importance.

"The city is still dealing with this event," Greiner said. "From a political and social perspective, it's a very public issue."

David T. Stevenson, an assistant Hamilton County prosecutor representing Winkler and then-Clerk of Courts James Cissell, argued Roach's right to privacy compelled Winkler to seal the court records.

Ohio law gives judges the authority to make that decision, he said, and public controversy in this case should not change that.

"This isn't just about one case involving one police shooting," Stevenson said. "Any records involving a public official will be fair game, regardless of the psychological damage it causes."

The justices appeared divided on the issue.

Justice Alice Robie Resnick said the court could overturn Winkler's decision only if it found his legal authority to seal records unconstitutional.

Resnick said that because Greiner was unwilling to press a strictly constitutional argument, "I just don't see how you're able to do anything at this time."

But Chief Justice Thomas J. Moyer seemed more supportive of the newspaper's position.

When Stevenson said the Enquirer "waived its right" to the information when it requested transcripts only after Winkler sealed the records, Moyer questioned why the timing mattered.

"The U.S. Supreme Court has said that high courts in this country should be open to the public," Moyer said. "The records are open."

The Enquirer first requested a transcript of the Roach trial on Dec. 5, 2001. Winkler denied the request and the newspaper took its case to the 1st District Court of Appeals.

That court gave Winkler another chance to justify his decision. The court finally upheld Winkler's decision after it determined that the judge had properly balanced Roach's right to privacy against the right of public access.

The Ohio Supreme Court generally hands down decisions in these cases within the next three to six months.

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