The city of Columbus and a group that works to free wrongly convicted people ended a years-long fight this week.
The city will pay $19,000 dollars for legal expenses incurred by the Ohio Innocence Project, which is based out of the University of Cincinnati school of law. Columbus will also pay the Ohio Innocence Project $1,000 in damages for illegally withholding public records.
Attorney Donald Caster, a clinical professor of law at the University of Cincinnati who works for the Project, explained in an interview with WOSU how the case unfolded and what it means for transparency in the state.
The below is an automated transcript. Please excuse minor typos and errors.
Sam Hendren: When did the Ohio Innocence Project first encounter resistance from the city of Columbus to public records requests?
Donald Caster: We've been encountering resistance from Columbus for several years. Sometimes we could work around the resistance with the Franklin County prosecuting attorney and sometimes we couldn't. We noticed that it wasn't just Columbus, it was other areas in Ohio as well. So at some point we decided that we needed to challenge the law enforcement agencies who were telling us that we weren't entitled to get public records to investigate claims of innocence.
Sam Hendren: So the Ohio Supreme Court then did what?
Donald Caster: The first thing that happens is the filing of a complaint. The city of Columbus then filed an answer and a motion to dismiss the complaint and said, "Look, even if everything the Ohio Innocence Project is saying is true, they're still not entitled to relief." The Ohio Supreme Court turned down that motion in order and ordered us to submit full briefs on the case. We did that.
The Ohio Supreme Court then heard oral arguments, they heard from the attorneys for the city of Columbus, they heard from attorneys for me and the Ohio Innocence Project, in this case Fred Gittes and Jeff Vardaro of the Gittes law firm. And then they eventually issued a decision just after Christmas.
Sam Hendren: And that decision says what?
Donald Caster: That decision says that a case that law enforcement agencies had been relying on, a case called "Steckman," which suggested in some ways that public records pertaining to criminal cases would never be accessible until a particular defendant or inmate were released from prison, is no longer good law. And it's no longer good law because some of the rules that control pretrial discovery between the state and the defendant had changed.
So the Ohio Supreme Court said it didn't need that rule any more. Now as soon as a criminal case is done, as soon as the trial is over, the public can go ahead and seek those records out from law enforcement agencies.
Sam Hendren: Because in one or perhaps many more cases, the city of Columbus for example was withholding records from the Ohio Innocence Project for decades.
Donald Caster: And what Columbus was saying was that they were going to withhold the records for decades. In this particular instance they said you won't be entitled to these records until the defendant in the case your researching is done serving his entire sentence. In this case, it's a life sentence, so it would have been upon the defendant's death.
Sam Hendren: Now we're talking about Adam Saleh, who was imprisoned or who is imprisoned for killing a woman named Julie Popovich.
Donald Caster: That's correct.
Sam Hendren: Right. Why is it important to have timely access to documents that the police department was refusing to hand over?
Donald Caster: For a couple of reasons. First of all, from a general standpoint, in Ohio we value the transparency of our public servants and that means being able to access the documents that they generate and that they rely upon in making our decision. From the standpoint of post-conviction work, of helping free people who have been wrongfully convicted, oftentimes the only way that we can prove that something went wrong at trial is to access the public records about that case.
Sam Hendren: And what has been the track record of the Innocence Project? Have innocent people been freed?
Donald Caster: That's correct. We've been around since 2003, and since 2003, 23 people have been released on grounds of innocence as a result of our work