AKRON, Ohio — A little-known change to Ohio law could have lasting implications in the media’s ability to report on police shootings.
The changes, contained in Senate Bill 288 and signed into law this month by Gov. Mike DeWine, strips away an exemption in Ohio’s public records laws that allows journalists to view preliminary autopsy reports and investigative notes.
That access is blocked as long as the death remains under police investigation.
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Had the law been in place last year, the public may never have heard the name Jayland Walker.
The exemption was used by reporters last summer to reveal at least 60 bullet wounds suffered by Walker, 25, who was killed in a hail of gunfire by eight Akron police officers.
3News Investigates examined autopsy records, including about 150 photos of Walker’s wounds and about 60 photos of bullet fragments. A large majority of the wounds were to the front of Walker’s body. Wounds could be seen from his face down to his lower legs.
The officers fired at least 90 shots, causing over 60 wounds. These numbers helped make the Walker shooting a national news story.
However, the number of wounds may not have been known to the public without journalist access.
“The city took a life, whether they were right or wrong, we should know exact how that happened,” said Bobby DiCello, whose firm represents the Walker family. “There would be absolutely no way for the public to know how Jayland died - specifically died - without that access to the preliminary autopsy.”
The Walker case wasn’t the first time 3News Investigates utilized the journalist’s exemption to Ohio’s public record law on order to report on questionable deaths.
3News retained legal counsel in 2017 to force Medina County prosecutors and the coroner to give a reporter access to the autopsy records of Lafayette Township Trustee Bryon Macron, whose suicide still sparks controversy.
Because of the public record law, 3News was able to report that Macron suffered stab wounds prior to his death.
3News also used the statute last summer to report on the shooting death of Frank Jackson Jr., the grandson of the former Cleveland mayor.
And the exemption was used in 2020 to force Erie County coroner to release reports showing no autopsy was performed on a 37-year-old Port Clinton man found dead in his home a day after testing positive for Covid-19.
DiCello said the law change only benefits law enforcement at expense of the public.
“What this really does is create a blanket over the events for Jayland’s shooting and for every shooting hereafter where journalists can’t get access to this information, can’t teach us about it.”
3News Investigates reached out to Akron police, area prosecutors and coroners along with state Sen. Nathan Manning, who sponsored the bill
No one would defend the law change.
Manning’s staff sent an email saying the law change came following a legal battle between the Cincinnati Enquirer and Pike County officials, who blocked access to the autopsy reports of a family of eight killed in 2016.
The Manning spokesperson wrote in an email:
“The preliminary autopsy might contain some of the same confidential investigatory information that the final autopsy does. If a journalist views that information in the preliminary autopsy and ultimately reports on it, it still loses its investigative value. The fact that it is in the preliminary autopsy report rather than the final report makes no difference.”
To DiCello and the Walker family, the law change does more harm than good. He pointed out that SB 288 left in place an exemption for insurance companies, many hired to defend police shootings.
“That should scare everyone…it scares us. it scares the Walker family because at the end of day, we need to know what really happened when the government takes a life.”
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