Court ruling balances the scales of justice

The vast majority of people convicted of crimes and sentenced to prison are found guilty based on the evidence against them. But sometimes an innocent man or woman ends up behind bars.

Studies suggest between 2 and 5 percent of all U.S. prisoners may be innocent. Yet even if just 1 percent are, that means that more than 20,000 were wrongfully convicted.

While nothing will right all wrongs in our legal system, a ruling by the Ohio Supreme Court should correct some.

Last week, the high court overturned the Columbus Police Department’s practice of refusing to release records in homicide and other high-profile cases to private investigators, the media, and the public.

The court found the city has been relying on prior court rulings, including one from 2000 which said police aren’t obligated to release files without proof that no further appeals are possible. The practice, which is not limited to just Columbus, could mean records remained secret until defendants died, or were freed from prison.

This week’s decision came in response to a 2014 complaint brought by the Ohio Innocence Project which wanted to review the police case file of Adam Saleh. Saleh is serving a 38-year prison term for a 2005 murder he claims he didn’t commit.

The court found, 4-1, that such records, with some exceptions, become a public record once the trial is over, even if further appeals are possible.

A lawyer for the Innocence Project had argued in the lawsuit that Columbus’ position, if allowed to continue, could keep “the innocent in prison and true killers walking the streets” since police case files could not be examined by third parties.

The court’s majority agreed, but noted exceptions for records protecting confidential informants and specific law-enforcement investigative techniques remain in place.

“How long must a convicted defendant or a member of the public wait?” Justice Paul Pfeifer wrote in the opinion. “We also should be concerned about the interests of justice.”

The court ruled the city had a “clear legal obligation” to provide records and, by ignoring the attorney’s request, must pay attorney fees, court costs and $1,000 in damages. Such awards have been rare in public records cases in recent years.

Saleh remains incarcerated. He may not be innocent. His prosecutor still claims the evidence against him is “overwhelming.”

But the ruling bodes well for the state’s public record act, which has been under attack in recent years, and for the Innocence Project, a nonprofit legal organization that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing, and to reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

To date, its efforts have led to the freeing of 343 wrongfully convicted people based on DNA, including 20 who spent time on death row, and the finding of 147 real perpetrators.

The high court’s ruling doesn’t mean all innocent prisoners will be free, but it helps balance the scales of justice.

— The (Findlay) Courier