Thursday, April 15, 2004

Sealing records OK, says court

By Amy McCullough
Enquirer Columbus Bureau

COLUMBUS - The Ohio Supreme Court Wednesday turned down The Cincinnati Enquirer's request to get records in the trial of a Cincinnati police officer acquitted in the fatal shooting of a fleeing, unarmed black man. The incident ignited three days of rioting.

The court unanimously ruled that state law allows a judge to expunge - or permanently erase - records in a criminal case after a defendant is found not guilty. Further, the court said the public and in this case, the Enquirer, had five weeks to look at the records before they were sealed.

The Enquirer filed suit Dec. 17, 2001 after failed attempts to get what it considered public records after the criminal trial of officer Stephen Roach. Roach was acquitted of charges of negligent homicide and obstructing official business after he shot Timothy Thomas, 19, in April 2001.

Five weeks after the trial, Judge Ralph Winkler granted Roach's request to seal the records. Jack Greiner, the Enquirer's lawyer, said he fears the decision may give trial courts too much power. He said the decision could ultimately hurt people's right to view critical documents.

"It gives trial courts a lot of discretion and ability to seal off access to court records and it may limit the ability to look back historically," he said.

The constitutional issue potentially could be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, Greiner said, but no decision has been made.

"We were confident in our position all along that this case fell within constitutional privacy safeguards," said Jon Esther, spokesman for the Hamilton County prosecutor's office.

Justice Francis E. Sweeney wrote that the newspaper had ample time to get the documents before they were sealed. Saying that although public access is important in a criminal trial, "the right ... is not absolute."

In a 7-0 decision, the court upheld the First District Court of Appeals decision to seal the court records and the decision to erase all charges from Roach's record.

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