Ohio Justices OK Release of Video Showing Judge Being Shot

Evidence markers are placed outside the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio, on Aug. 21, 2017, after Judge Joseph Bruzzese Jr. was ambushed and shot earlier in the day. (Darrell Sapp/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) — The Ohio Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that footage from a courthouse’s exterior camera that captured a judge being shot should be released under the state’s public records law.

Jefferson County Common Pleas Court Judge Joseph Bruzzese Jr. was shot on Aug. 21, 2017, by Nathaniel Richmond, the father of a juvenile convicted of rape in 2013, although Bruzzese did not preside over the case. At the time, however, Richmond had a wrongful death lawsuit pending before Bruzzese.

The judge and a nearby probation officer returned fire and fatally wounded the attacker, while Bruzzese required surgery but ultimately recovered from his injuries.

The attack, which took place near an employee-only entrance on a public street, was recorded by a security camera, the footage of which was requested by Associated Press reporter Andrew Welsh-Huggins.

Welsh-Huggins’s requests were denied repeatedly by the Jefferson County prosecutor’s office, so he filed a public records action in the Ohio Court of Claims in May 2018.

In January 2019, a special master assigned to the case denied the prosecutor’s motion to dismiss and recommended a redacted version of the footage be provided to the AP.

The prosecutor appealed to the state’s Seventh District Court of Appeals, arguing that because the video shows emergency response protocols, it is exempt from disclosure under the Public Records Act’s “security record” exception.

The appeals court agreed and overruled the Court of Claims decision, which prompted the AP to appeal to the state’s high court.

On Tuesday, the court unanimously agreed the prosecutor’s office failed to provide evidence the footage “falls squarely within the exemption,” ruling it is subject to release.

Justice Michael Donnelly wrote the court’s opinion, and said the video footage alone is insufficient to establish it as a security record “used for protecting or maintaining the security of a public office against attack, interference, or sabotage.”

In such a case, the custodian of the record “bears the burden of establishing the applicability of an exception to disclosure under the Public Records Act,” and the court held the prosecutor’s office failed to meet that burden.

The prosecutor argued divulging the footage would reveal weak spots in courthouse security and allow possible attackers to study the emergency response protocols used by security personnel, but Donnelly was skeptical.

“The video here,” he wrote, “captured an incident and emergency response that occurred outside the public office on a public street. The incident and emergency response would have been and perhaps was observed by any number of bystanders, any of whom could likely have recorded at least some portion of these events on ubiquitous personal-communications devices.”

He added, “That this incident and response were readily observable to the public would seemingly undermine the concern that the video might disclose something that an eyewitness would not have seen.”

Donnelly admitted the prosecutor’s concerns about courthouse security are legitimate and highly important, but leaned heavily on the statutory language of the Public Records Act in rejecting them.

“Under [the Act],” he wrote, “a record’s status as a security record is determined by the public office’s actual use of the information. It is not determined by a public requester’s potential use of misuse of the information.”

Donnelly echoed the need for governmental transparency in his conclusion, stressing the importance of allowing the “public to see how our government agencies work, whether good or bad.”

“If the video footage of this incident would reveal vulnerabilities in courthouse security in 2017 – which we doubt – the answer is not to conceal them in 2020 but rather to ensure that they have been identified and corrected,” the judge wrote.

According to the AP, Jefferson County Prosecutor Jane Hanlin did not respond to a request for the video on Tuesday after the ruling was released.

Attorney John Greiner of Graydon Law, who represented the AP before the Ohio Supreme Court, told Courthouse News they are gratified the high court “ruled unanimously in favor of governmental transparency.”

“The legal question was actually pretty simple. A public office can withhold a record from public inspection only if it can produce credible, competence evidence justifying the withholding,” Greiner said in a statement. “The Jefferson County Prosecutor never came forward with any such evidence, and the Supreme Court reached the correct decision.”

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