The investigative files of a completed criminal case are a public record under Ohio law and can be released even if further appeals are possible, the state Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in a lawsuit brought by the Ohio Innocence Project.
Public records lawyers had argued that police departments were improperly interpreting earlier court decisions and arguing they could shield the files of long-closed cases until the defendants died.
At issue was an attempt by the Innocence Project to review the case of a man sentenced to 38 years in prison for killing a woman in 2005. The project doesn't represent defendant Adam Saleh but wants to review the records, which Saleh alleges will bolster his claim that he didn't do it.
A divided court ruled Friday that the files, with some exceptions, become a public record once a trial is over.
The court said that under Ohio's open record laws, the lawyer requesting Saleh's file "had a clear legal right to the requested records and that respondents had a clear legal duty to provide the records," said Justice Paul Pfeifer, writing for the majority.
Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor said the city of Columbus should release all public records in the Saleh case. But she said other investigatory records should be shielded, and the files should not be released until after all a defendant's appeals are over or a police department closes a case without charges.
"Releasing materials that demonstrate law-enforcement investigatory strategies, particularly if knowledge of such strategies would empower criminals to avoid detection, is dangerous," O'Connor wrote in a dissent.
Messages were left for the city of Columbus and the Innocence Project seeking comment.
Evidence released through public records has resulted in numerous exonerations of wrongfully convicted inmates, open records attorney Fred Gittes argued in a filing in June 2015.
"These exonerations have not weakened our system of justice; they have strengthened it, by providing another device for correcting the unavoidable missteps of a system that can never attain perfection, but should always strive for it," Gittes said.
The lawsuit argued that changes in state Supreme Court evidence rules have addressed concerns raised by older court rulings regarding the release of case files.
A 2000 appeals court ruling said police aren't obligated to release the files without proof that no further appeals are possible, "e.g., the defendant's death."
Police departments and their records divisions don't know all the facts behind investigative files, including what witnesses might have been promised confidentiality, Paula Lloyd, an assistant Columbus city attorney, wrote in a court filing in July 2015
Open records law "must be balanced against the compelling need to let police investigators do their jobs effectively," Lloyd said.
Because Saleh's conviction was based in part on the testimony of several jailhouse informants, Saleh contends that a full review of the case could exonerate him, according to the lawsuit.
Ohio is not alone in restricting the release of police records, but many states, including Florida, Georgia and Idaho, generally require the release of closed files.
Saleh, 30, was convicted in the death of aspiring model Julie Popovich, last seen leaving a bar near the Ohio State University campus in August 2005. The skeletal remains of the 20-year-old woman were found three weeks later in suburban Westerville.
Saleh was seen leaving a bar with the woman shortly before she disappeared, made cellphone calls that night within a mile of where her body was discovered and wrote letters to people trying to set up phony alibis, Franklin County Ron O'Brien has said, arguing the evidence against Saleh was overwhelming.