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Media ask court to unseal docs in criminal conspiracy case

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  1. Court Access
A Youngstown, Ohio, newspaper and television station have joined forces to ask the Ohio Supreme Court to make public all…

A Youngstown, Ohio, newspaper and television station have joined forces to ask the Ohio Supreme Court to make public all documents and proceedings in a high-profile criminal-conspiracy case. If successful, the action would bar the judge from keeping pretrial documents sealed from the public or from closing any court hearings.

The underlying criminal case involves a 73-count indictment charging seven people, the Cafaro Co. and two other organizations with multiple felony and misdemeanors charges from an alleged conspiracy to prevent or delay the relocation of the Mahoning County Jobs and Family Services Office.

The (Youngstown) Vindicator and WFMJ-TV unsuccessfully tried to vacate two September 2010 orders granting Cafaro's motion to temporarily seal all bills of particulars and notices of intent surrounding the case until after the case's June 6, 2011, trial in Mahoning County. Although other documents have been unsealed in response to a motion by the media's attorney, Marion H. Little Jr., visiting Judge William H. Wolff Jr. of the Mahoning County Common Pleas Court affirmed the defendant's motion to withhold the requested documents in a Dec. 21, 2010, order.

In the order, Wolff agreed with Cafaro that such documents were part of the discovery process and should not be accorded the “presumption of public access" because releasing them would hurt the defense's ability to receive a fair trial. Wolff's order stated that he took "into account The Vindicator's intense, tough coverage of this case" in concluding "that publication of these documents would result in a substantial probability that seating an impartial jury in Mahoning County would be impossible."

The court was highly cautious of releasing the requested documents because, in the court's opinion, The Vindicator has "a virtual monopoly on the dissemination of local news in Mahoning County." Although Little argued the court should move the case to another Ohio county in light of potential prejudice, Wolff responded that “the court’s effort to seat an impartial jury should begin in Mahoning County."

The Vindicator and WFMJ-TV's complaint to the state Supreme Court seeks to overturn that decision. The media's filing maintains that the court's two orders granted in September impermissibly came "without a prior evidentiary hearing and/or proof by clear and convincing evidence of the need for such closure," and that the Dec. 21 order continued the improper presumption of closure. This process, the media's filing argued, is inconsistent with federal and state court access law. The filing also asserts that the lower court's failure to release the requested documents violates the state's open records law.