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Appeals court declines to force handover of mass shooting victim autopsies to LA Times

The three-judge panel ordered the lower court to reconsider its reasoning for blocking the records' release and the autopsies will remains sealed — for now.

LOS ANGELES (CN) — A California appeals court on Wednesday declined to order Ventura County to hand over the autopsy reports of the 11 civilian victims in the Borderline shooting to the Los Angeles Times, though it did ask the lower court to reconsider its decision.

In their unanimous ruling, the three-judge panel found that the Ventura County Superior Court Judge did err in his decision to issue a preliminary injunction blocking the public release of the autopsy records — but only in his reasoning, which centered on a new state law he expected to pass, which would have shielded some autopsy records from the public.

The lower court, the panel wrote in its 8-page decision, "was required to apply the law then in effect, not as it might be if the law were amended as proposed by legislators."

However, the judges stopped well short of ordering the records to be released, or even weighing in on the merits of the dispute. Instead, they found both sides "invoke equally tenable positions concerning the integrity of government institutions and the dignity of the families."

Reporters from the Times had requested the autopsy reports, which are public records in California, for all 13 victims in the 2018 mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in Thousand Oaks. Ventura County first denied the request, saying the investigation was still active.

After the Times sued, the county released records for the shooter, David Long, and a sheriff's deputy Ron Helus, who was killed in the incident: Helus was shot five times by Long, but the fatal bullet came from another law enforcement officer. The county later signaled their readiness to release the records of the 11 civilian victims, but families of the victims filed their own lawsuit to keep the autopsies sealed.

The families said that they had already been subjected to numerous phone calls and emails from people who believed the mass shooting to be some sort of politically motivated hoax. The families said they feared the release of the autopsy records would only encourage such harassment.

A lower court judge agreed to block Ventura County from releasing the records, largely relying on a new law being considered in Sacramento — the law didn't pass, though a new, less extreme version is currently under consideration. The Times appealed. During oral arguments, Second Appellate District Justices Arthur Gilbert, Kenneth Yegan and Steven Perren seemed to make a decision on the spot.

"Shouldn’t we just send the case back and tell the trial court to decide it in conformity with the law?” Gilbert asked.

LA Times attorney Kelly Aviles said the court should go further and order the county to release the records. “The Borderline shooting happened years ago,” she said. “We still don’t have disclosure of the records. That’s the harm. The Public Records Act was intended to give records to the public when they’re newsworthy.”

But Gilbert appeared reluctant to take such a step.

"The arguments you want to make, you’ll get to make,” Gilbert said. “You’ll have a full hearing without this statute hanging over your head contaminating your arguments about what the law is.”

Wednesday's ruling did little more than reiterate Gilbert's point. "The appearance of a potential legislative solution on the horizon did not allow the court to bypass a meaningful analysis into the prerequisites for issuing a preliminary injunction — particularly the families’ likelihood of prevailing on the merits of their case at trial," Perren wrote for the panel in the unpublished ruling.

The lower court will now reconsider the merits of the preliminary injunction. If kept in place, the proceedings could, eventually, make their way to trial and Times reporters may have to wait a lot longer for those records.

Aviles did not return a phone call requesting comment on the opinion. Alice Loughran, the victims' families' lawyer, declined to comment.

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