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Secrecy dispute in dismissed Ohio criminal case continues

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  1. Court Access
News media attempts to gain public access to key court records in a now-dismissed Youngstown, Ohio, criminal case continue, with…

News media attempts to gain public access to key court records in a now-dismissed Youngstown, Ohio, criminal case continue, with a flurry of recent filings in two separate courts.

At issue is public access to court records in State v. Cafaro, a high-profile criminal case in the Mahoning County Court of Common Pleas involving conspiracy and corruption-related charges. The state asked the court to dismiss the charges last month, reportedly in response to the prosecution's inability to obtain timely access to potential evidence held by federal authorities that the defense may have a right to review. The court dismissed the case “without prejudice,” which means the state may have the option of bringing new charges in the future.

The dismissal has only intensified the ongoing dispute over access to the underlying court records, however.

The records dispute began last year, after the judge presiding over the Cafaro criminal case, visiting Judge William H. Wolff Jr. issued sealing orders and procedures withholding some pre-trial filings from public access. The (Youngstown) Vindicator and WFMJ-TV in Ohio asked Wolff to lift those orders. Wolff agreed to some modifications and the release of some records, but he declined to unseal other records, including bills of particulars that outlined in more detail the state’s case. Wolff also continued to require the parties to submit various briefing under seal.

The Vindicator and WFMJ asked the Ohio Supreme Court to overturn that sealing practice and release the sealed records. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the news media’s position in May.

That case remains pending before the Ohio Supreme Court. But after having the criminal case against them dismissed, the defendants now seek to have the entire official record at the trial court sealed.

The defendants have filed briefing on the matter in the trial court and the state Supreme Court. Although their July 21, 2011, trial court briefing was filed under seal, defendants attached a copy of that briefing to their publicly filed Supreme Court papers. Those papers say the defendants seek not only to have the official trial court records sealed, but also a court order providing that “the proceedings in this case shall be deemed not to have occurred.”

Attorneys for The Vindicator and WFMJ are contesting the defendants’ request for additional sealing in the trial court, but their July 29, 2011, briefing remains under seal in that court. The prosecution also apparently opposes the sealing of the case file, although its opposition briefing remains under seal as well.

The news media parties also responded last week to the defendants’ new filings in the Ohio Supreme Court, arguing that dismissal of the underlying case should not affect the issue before the state Supreme Court. An attorney representing Wolff has also asked the state Supreme Court to allow him to submit additional argument on the case.

Decisions on the sealing matters in the trial court and state Supreme Court are pending.