Saturday, October 12, 2002

Judges spar on Roach records

City balks at releasing sealed trial transcript

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Two Cincinnati judges are at odds over who should be allowed to see the sealed court records of former Cincinnati Police Officer Stephen Roach.

U.S. District Judge S. Arthur Spiegel has ordered city lawyers to turn over the records so they may be used in federal court by Angela Leisure, who is suing the officer for shooting to death her son last year.

But Municipal Judge Ralph E. Winkler said Friday that Judge Spiegel has no right to demand the records and that city lawyers would violate Ohio law if they comply with the federal court order.

The legal standoff pits judge against judge, state law against federal law and privacy rights against the public's right to know.

“This could be a battle,” said Christo Lassiter, a former prosecutor who now is a law professor at the University of Cincinnati. “It could be a real duel.”

The dispute involves the record of Officer Roach's trial last year on charges of negligent homicide in the death of Timothy Thomas, who was shot after a police chase in Over-the-Rhine.

The shooting sparked several days of rioting in Cincinnati. Mr. Thomas' mother filed a civil rights lawsuit against Officer Roach and the city.

After Judge Winkler found Officer Roach not guilty of the criminal charges, the judge granted his request for an expungement.

The expungement cleared the officer's name and barred public access to records from his criminal case.

But when Ms. Leisure filed her federal lawsuit, she asked to view transcripts and other court documents from the criminal trial. She said she needed those records to prove that Officer Roach and the city are liable for her son's death because of poor training and improper procedures.

In an order last month, Judge Spiegel said Ms. Leisure is entitled to the records. City lawyers then wrote a letter to Judge Winkler, explaining that they had no choice but to comply with Judge Spiegel's order.

“We sincerely hope that you understand the difficult position in which we find ourselves,” wrote Assistant City Solicitor Geri Hernandez Geiler.

Judge Winkler said he does understand, but he still thinks the city should refuse to give up the records. Although he said he would be reluctant to hold the lawyers in contempt of his order, other parties — including Officer Roach — could file a formal complaint if the records are released.

“I told them I would not release the records,” Judge Winkler said. “It seems that Judge Spiegel is ordering the city attorneys to violate Ohio law. I guess Ohio law doesn't apply to Judge Spiegel.”

Judge Spiegel could not be reached for comment Friday, and Ms. Geiler declined comment. So it was unclear whether city lawyers had made a decision on which judge's order they would follow.

Ms. Leisure's lawyer, Kenneth Lawson, said he has not received any of the records. He said the city seems content to keep the records hidden in order to protect itself from potentially incriminating evidence.

“This is really starting to stink,” Mr. Lawson said. “It's an intentional way for them to try to avoid civil liability.”

Judge Winkler, however, said state law on expungements is intended to protect people who have been cleared of criminal charges. He said that law should not be disregarded simply because a federal judge says so.

“The person with the biggest complaint would be Stephen Roach,” Judge Winkler said. “It's a fairness issue.”

Officer Roach, now a police officer in Evendale, could not be reached for comment.

A separate challenge to Judge Winkler's order sealing the records is pending in a state appeals court. In that case, the Enquirer has sought the release of the records on grounds that it is in the public interest.

The appeals court told Judge Winkler to submit a brief explaining why he believes the release of the records is not in the public interest.

Judge Winkler said he will probably do so within 30 days.


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