Ohio court rules video of judge’s shooting is public record

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FILE – In this Monday Aug. 21, 2017 file photo shows evidence markers being placed on N. Court Street and the sidewalk next to the Jefferson County Courthouse in Steubenville, Ohio, after Jefferson County Judge Joseph Bruzzese Jr. was ambushed and shot earlier in the day. The Ohio Supreme Court has ruled that security camera footage of the judge being shot and wounded is a public record. The court’s Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020 ruling sided with arguments by The Associated Press in seeking access to the video. (Darrell Sapp/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — 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.

In a separate opinion, state Supreme Court Justice Sharon Kennedy said there is no doubt the court’s security cameras and their livestream video are used to safeguard the courthouse.

But she added, “there is nothing in the record even suggesting that old security-camera footage in general, and the video of the shooting specifically, is used to protect or maintain the security of the courthouse.”

Hanlin said her office will respect the decision but is disappointed by it.

“We believe strongly that this record is a security record and that today’s decision weakens our ability to protect our courthouse officials – and, indeed, weakens the ability of officials to protect courthouses and public buildings across Ohio,” she said.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday when the video would be released.

Tuesday’s ruling was the first time the high court ruled on a public records challenge brought under a 2016 law allowing non-lawyers to make requests through the Ohio Court of Claims.

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.”

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.

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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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