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Newspaper wins release of murder investigation records

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NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   OHIO   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Oct. 24, 2005

NEWS MEDIA UPDATE   ·   OHIO   ·   Freedom of Information   ·   Oct. 24, 2005


Newspaper wins release of murder investigation records

  • The Akron Beacon Journal this week received the police call logs and phone tapes related to a January triple homicide after an appeals court ruled they are public.

Oct. 24, 2005  ·   Call logs and tapes of emergency 911 calls related to a Jan. 21 triple homicide in a small Ohio town were given to the Akron Beacon Journal this week under a court order ruling the records to be public.

The newspaper requested information shortly after the murder of two women and a boy in Brimfield Township, about 10 miles east of Akron. The murders were big news in the small town and the newspaper wanted to thoroughly cover them, said Stephen Dyer, the Beacon Journal reporter who covered the story.

The suspect in the case, James Earl Trimble, recently had been released from federal prison on weapons charges when he allegedly shot his girlfriend 13 times — seven of those shots allegedly hitting and killing her 7-year-old son, Dyer said. Trimble then wandered the woods, allegedly shooting at police, ending up at a duplex where he allegedly took a university student hostage, and later killed her, Dyer said. Trimble’s capital-murder trial is currently being heard in the Portage County Court in Ravenna, Ohio.

The newspaper received some of the records it had immediately requested, but others were withheld, Dyer said. “We got the 911 call logs, but we were aware that the university student was on the phone with negotiators when she was killed. We thought that would be included but it wasn’t,” he said. “We asked the prosecutor for the tape, he said we weren’t getting it.”

After Brimfield Township police and prosecutors refused to release requested records, the newspaper filed the case directly with the 11th District Court of Appeals in Warren, Ohio, asking for an expedited hearing. An appellate magistrate held two hearings on the case in June, said Karen Lefton, the in-house counsel for the Beacon Journal, and then submitted the case for a ruling to the three-judge appeals panel which ordered the records’ release Oct. 13.

“The law is pretty well established,” Lefton said, “but it’s still important because Brimfield was trying to carve out a new exception saying if records are used in an investigation, they are confidential and should be private. We said the records documented the events and were pre-investigation. The court agreed with us.”

Judge William O’Neill wrote that the records are public and not exempt from disclosure as either investigatory or trial preparation records. Judge Donald R. Ford dissented, stating that while most of the records should be disclosed, some of the records are confidential law enforcement investigatory records that should not be made public.

Despite the expedited hearing, Dyer is displeased that it took so long for the court to rule. “What flustered me was that the records were obviously public and they were obviously doing this to delay us. I don’t think that’s the way it’s supposed to work. It’s not the spirit of the law,” he said. “But it’s important to fight these fights to make records available, even if it’s too late when you get them.”

The newspaper received the records Monday, but Dyer has yet to get through all of the materials, he said.

Lefton noted that the appeals panel had reviewed all of the requested materials before its ruling, which is likely what accounted for the delay, she said. “We’re happy that they did review it,” she said. “We did not want a blanket ruling and we’re glad that they did take the time to look at everything.” Either way, she said, the newspaper wanted to send a message that when records are improperly withheld, it will fight to get them. “We don’t want to clog the courts any more than we need to, but we will be very diligent in getting records and reporting to people. I feel very strongly that it’s our responsibility.”

(Ohio v. Brimfield Township Police Department; Media counsel: Karen Lefton, Akron)CZ


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