Surveillance video showing an Ohio judge being shot and wounded at a courthouse before the assailant was himself shot and killed is a public record that should be released, the Ohio Supreme Court said Tuesday in a case brought by The Associated Press.
The court rejected a prosecutor’s arguments that releasing the video could endanger court personnel by revealing details of security protocol.
The Jefferson County prosecutor never provided any evidence about how the county was using the video footage of the shooting for security purposes, said Justice Michael Donnelly, who wrote the court's unanimous opinion.
“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 wrote.
The video shows Jefferson County Judge Joseph Bruzzese Jr. being shot outside a courthouse in Steubenville in eastern Ohio in August 2017 by Nathaniel Richmond, 51, and then Richmond being killed by a probation officer.
Richmond had a pending wrongful death lawsuit in front of Bruzzese at the time. The judge recovered and later returned to the bench.
The day of the shooting, the AP asked for a copy of the surveillance video recorded by a camera positioned in front of the courthouse. Jefferson County Prosecutor Jane Hanlin denied that request, saying the video was a confidential law enforcement record and part of the courthouse’s infrastructure security system, among other arguments.
The state Supreme Court agreed to hear the case after the Ohio Court of Claims sided with the AP and appeals court later ruled against the AP.
A message was left with Hanlin on Tuesday seeking comment and a copy of the video.
Attorney John Greiner, who represented the AP, said the news organization was gratified by the ruling in favor of governmental transparency.
“The legal question was actually pretty simple,” Greiner wrote in an email. “A public office can withhold a record from public inspection only if it can produce credible, competent evidence justifying the withholding. The Jefferson County Prosecutor never came forward with any such evidence, and the Supreme Court reached the correct decision.”
In its arguments to the Supreme Court, the AP’s attorney said Ohio case law is clear that the video is a public record, as the Ohio Court of Claims previously ruled, and should be released.
The Jefferson County prosecutor’s office “fails to meet its burden of showing that release of any part of the video would endanger the life or physical safety of any person,” a special master with the Court of Claims ruled in January 2019.
Media advocacy groups and media companies supporting the AP in a court filing include the Ohio Coalition for Open Government, Ohio Association of Broadcasters, the Society of Professional Journalists, E.W. Scripps Co. and Gannett Co.
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Justice Michael Donnelly's name on second reference from O’Donnell to Donnelly.
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