The Alabama Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments in the appeal of a civil lawsuit filed by Lagniappe against the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office regarding the release of camera footage from the 2017 shooting of Jonathan Victor. Victor was killed by deputies after being in a one-car accident on I-10. When he exited his vehicle, he was shot after brandishing what turned out to be a fanny pack and moving towards officers. (Photo courtesy of the Victor family)
The Alabama Supreme Court has agreed to hear oral arguments in an appeal of a civil lawsuit Lagniappe filed against the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) seeking the release of camera footage and other records from an officer-involved shooting in 2017.
Filed last February, the lawsuit was brought after BCSO denied an open records request related to the death of Jonathan Victor, who was fatally shot by Sgt. Matt Hunady in May 2017. The shooting occurred after a single-vehicle accident Victor was in while traveling on Interstate 10.
Victor’s death, like all officer-involved shootings in Baldwin County, was investigated by the Baldwin County Major Crimes Unit — a separate entity made up of representatives of several law enforcement agencies from surrounding municipalities as well as BCSO.
In October 2019, attorneys representing BCSO and Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack successfully persuaded Presiding Circuit Judge Scott Taylor to dismiss the lawsuit based on the way Lagniappe submitted its initial request for the records. The department has maintained the request should have been filed with the Major Crimes Unit and that no files related to Victor’s death or Hunady’s investigation exist at BCSO.
This publication’s lawyers, which include attorney David McDonald and the Chicago-based firm of Loevy & Loevy, have argued on appeal that no matter which agency investigated Victor’s death, Lagniappe asked BCSO for public records that should be in its possession — like dash-cam, body-cam and third-party video footage, photographs from the scene, autopsy records and various communications.
BCSO personnel did mention that the investigation was conducted by the Baldwin County Major Crimes Unit, which Lagniappe was aware of at the time of the request. In follow-up emails, a reporter sought clarification as to who else, if anyone, the request needed to be submitted to. In response, BCSO denied Lagniappe’s request and never claimed it didn’t have the records being sought.
It’s worth noting that BCSO screened some of the body-camera footage captured during Victor’s shooting with the local media after Hunady was cleared by a Baldwin County grand jury in late 2017. The Major Crimes Unit’s investigation had previously determined Hunady’s use of lethal force was justified.
Audio from the incident captured officers giving Victor multiple verbal commands, including “Do not advance,” “Stay right there” and “Put it down.” In the video, Victor is seen holding something covered in some type of clothing and eventually is seen advancing toward officers.
The object was later determined to be a fanny pack. No weapon was found on Victor or in his vehicle. Full, unedited footage captured by the body cameras and dash cameras of other officers and on the phones of bystanders at the scene has not yet been released publicly as of this time.
Reporters have sought those records because the footage and communications could provide more context about the demeanor officers had as they arrived on the scene after being contacted by the paramedics, who initially responded to Victor’s car accident.
“We are glad for the opportunity to argue our case to Alabama’s Supreme Court after the Baldwin County Circuit Court allowed a questionable procedural issue derail the central matter of whether body-camera footage leading up to Victor’s death should be viewed by the public. We believe it should, especially since it is not clear how the situation escalated from rendering aid to an accident victim to officers appearing to winder up under the impression Victor was armed and a threat. We hope the footage will help explain that. It is also important records requests such as this be treated more seriously by the Sheriff’s Office,” Lagniappe co-publisher Rob Holbert said.
Victor’s family still argues he was injured and needed help at the time. His mother, Donna Chisesi, filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit against Hunady, Mack and BCSO last year related to the shooting.
Neither Lagniappe nor its attorneys are involved in that pending civil litigation.
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