The Ohio Innocence Project is suing Columbus police over their refusal to release investigative records in a closed murder case in which the killer has exhausted his appeals.
An attorney with the group based at the University of Cincinnati College Of Law filed the public-records action Friday in the Ohio Supreme Court.
Columbus police have refused to release case files in murder cases since 2010, interpreting an appellate court ruling as forbidding the release of records until murderers die in prison or are freed.
The filing by Donald Caster, an attorney with the Ohio Innocence Project, says that Police Chief Kimberley Jacobs is violating Ohio’s public records law by using a “now-obsolete analysis” of a 2000 court ruling to deny the release of case files.
“You can’t have a fair justice system if the people going through it have to be dead to gain access to records to make sure it is working,” Columbus lawyer Fred Gittes, who represents Caster, said today.
Caster said Columbus police illegally denied the Innocence Project’s request for records concerning Adam Saleh, who was convicted of the 2005 murder and kidnapping of part-time model Julie Popovich of Reynoldsburg.
The body of Popovich, 20, was found near Hoover Reservoir three weeks after two witnesses said she left a Short North bar with Saleh. He was sentenced to 38 years to life in prison in 2007. He exhausted his last appeals in 2009.
The Innocence Project does not represent Saleh, now 27, but wants to review the case file to assess his claim that he was wrongly convicted, in part, by the testimony of jailhouse informants who claimed he indicated killing Popovich.
“The work of the Ohio Innocence Project and others has demonstrated the value of public records ... both to exonerate wrongfully convicted individuals and identifying the true perpetrators in many cases,” Caster’s filing says.
Columbus City Attorney Richard C. Pfeiffer Jr. said today that his office has not been given a copy of the lawsuit and could not comment.
A Cleveland appeals court ruled in 2000 that police records could not be released as public records while criminal defendants still can file wrongful-conviction appeals. Such filings generally can be made anytime.
That ruling came out of a 1994 Ohio Supreme Court case in which the justices said defendants must use court discovery rules, rather than public records laws, to obtain police documents about their cases.
In his filing, Gittes argues that ruling should be set aside because criminal-discovery rules were expanded in 2010 to provide defendants to a greater array of documents held by police and prosecutors.
The Dispatch and private investigators also have been denied access to police files, including in non-murder cases, due to police lawyers’ interpretation of the court rulings.
Following the lead of Columbus, Gittes says other Ohio police departments also are denying the public and news media access to their records.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages – which by law are limited to $1,000 – and costs of bringing the legal action.