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Strong interest in Ohio public corruption case warrants unsealing of many trial exhibits

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A federal judge in Ohio has granted several news media organizations’ request to unseal hundreds of trial exhibits in the…

A federal judge in Ohio has granted several news media organizations’ request to unseal hundreds of trial exhibits in the racketeering case of an ex-government official.

But U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi declined to immediately release several other exhibits, including recordings of wiretapped conversations, claiming that doing so could affect the appeal and fair-trial rights of James C. Dimora, who is also a defendant in another criminal case alleging substantially similar conduct.

A jury convicted Dimora, a former commissioner in Cuyahoga County, the county seat of Cleveland, earlier this month on 37 federal corruption charges, including fraud, conspiracy and bribery. Various news organizations, including WKYC TV and The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer, made written and oral requests that Lioi release all of the exhibits admitted during the, coincidentally, 37-day trial.

These materials included: financial, county and municipal records, as well as records of other court proceedings and plea agreements entered into by certain co-conspirators; hundreds of photographs and videos, some of which were still shots from surveillance cameras operated by the FBI during its three-year investigation into suspected public corruption in Cuyahoga County; exhibits that summarized the content of other exhibits and witness testimony, including an interactive compilation of photographs and computer drawings of the Dimora residence; hundreds of the 44,000 FBI-intercepted telephone conversations between Dimora, co-conspirators and others and transcripts of the recordings, paper copies of which were furnished to members of the jury and electronic versions of which were displayed on screens in the courtroom, as well as a designated “media room” and overflow rooms; and other miscellaneous documents such as handwritten notes seized during the execution of search warrants.

The U.S. Supreme Court recognized a common-law right “to inspect and copy public records and documents, including judicial records and documents” in the 1978 landmark case Nixon v. Warner Communications, Inc. Under the common law’s more relaxed standard, courts make sealing decisions by balancing the interests of the parties involved with those of the public and the press, the latter of which include increasing “the depth of public knowledge of this case,” Lioi said in her order, released Thursday.

“This case has engendered considerable media and public interest, and because the case centers on the conduct of a public official, the importance of public scrutiny is heightened,” she said. “The sheer volume of exhibits in this case can perhaps be said to weigh in favor of allowing the media and public to more thoroughly and effectively scrutinize the evidence through post-trial inspection and copying, as such a massive quantity of exhibits might pose special challenges to those members of the public present at trial who are attempting to digest it firsthand and those members of the media, also present at trial, who are attempting to gather and condense that information for the broader public not present at trial.”

That public interest, however, can be overcome by certain interests of the parties, namely in this case, Lioi said, Dimora’s interest in maintaining his rights on appeal and his rights to a fair trial.

Although Dimora still has time to file an appeal, he has asked Lioi for more time to file a motion for a new trial, she said. He also is scheduled to stand trial in another criminal case in October, the judge added.

“There is a serious danger that widespread release of certain exhibits from [this trial] would serve to taint the jury pool for [the October trial] . . . The Court is thus loathe to release any exhibits at this time that might make it more difficult to ensure that Dimora’s due process right to a fair and unbiased jury is preserved in [October],” Lioi said.

As such, the judge declined to release five photographs, two of which, taken inside the Dimora residence, inadvertently include images of Dimora family personal effects and photographs.

She also refused to release about 15 videos depicting Dimora and others during an April 2005 trip to Las Vegas that the government contends show Dimora receiving bribes in the form of gambling chips.

Members of the media and others also will not have access to either the recordings of intercepted conversations or the written transcripts, at least until all court proceedings related to the FBI’s investigation are over, Lioi ruled.

“The public’s interest in these exhibits, and the incremental gain in knowledge that would result from being given access to the recordings and transcripts at this time, cannot be denied. . . . But these same considerations weighing in favor of ultimate release of the recordings and transcripts — public interest in these exhibits, the nature of the information contained therein, and the integral role that wiretap recordings played in this case — also highlight the danger of releasing these exhibits at this time,” she said.

Related Reporters Committee resources:

· The First Amendment Handbook: Introduction — Criminal proceedings

· Dig.J.Leg.Gd.: Covering courts: access to evidence

· Dig.J.Leg.Gd.: Media coverage and the jury pool

· Dig.J.Leg.Gd.: Sealing the trial record