Lagniappe has filed a lawsuit against the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) seeking the release of records produced during the investigation into a fatal 2017 officer-involved shooting.
Earlier this month, the agency denied an Open Records Act request seeking written and electronic records related to the death of Jonathan Victor. A Louisiana resident, Victor was fatally shot by a BCSO deputy on May 12, 2017, following a single-vehicle accident along Interstate 10.
The shooting was investigated by the Baldwin County Major Crimes Unit, which comprises representatives from several agencies in the area, including the BCSO. Yet, Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack has previously said his personnel recused themselves from that particular investigation.
Sgt. Matt Hunady, the officer who shot and killed Victor, was cleared of any wrongdoing after a Baldwin County grand jury determined his use of lethal force was justified given the circumstances.
Specifically, Lagniappe is seeking “all of the records related to the shooting of Jonathan Victor on May 12, 2017, including but not limited to dash cam, body cam, and third-party video; the audio from any 911 calls or radio communications; photographs from the scene; autopsy records; and communications such as emails, text messages, and other forms of messaging.”
Lagniappe Co-Publisher Rob Holbert said the paper feels it is important news organizations and the public have the opportunity to view all of the footage available because it is still unclear how the situation escalated from Victor being involved in an automobile accident to the point where he was shot. Lagniappe believes the requested records are public and should be released, as the criminal investigation into Victor’s death has concluded.
“We believe there is a First Amendment right for newspapers to fulfill their duty as public watchdogs when it comes to reviewing investigative records once the investigation is complete. Unfortunately, Alabama has continued to clamp down on the release of police reports, body camera footage and other records in direct opposition to the concept of transparency,” Holbert said. “Such records are withheld or made partially available based upon what appear to be arbitrary decision-making processes not in step with state open records laws. We think it is important to fight for total transparency, especially in a situation such as this where law enforcement records could possibly offer a more definitive narrative of what led to an unarmed man being shot.”
However, representatives for BCSO said the request couldn’t be granted based on an Alabama law which states in part, “law enforcement investigative reports, records, field notes, witness statements, and other investigative writings or recordings” are not considered public records but instead are “privileged communications protected from disclosure.”
It’s worth noting BCSO allowed the media to view, record and rebroadcast some of the video footage captured the day Victor was killed, including a cellphone recording made by a nearby motorist and footage from Sgt. Hunady’s body camera, though it’s unclear if that footage was shown in its entirety.
Those videos were screened during a press conference on Oct. 16, 2017. 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 while advancing toward officers. It was later determined to be a fanny pack.
In the complaint filed Feb. 26, Lagniappe’s legal counsel maintains “that by failing to produce all of the responsive records,” BCSO and its employees violated the Alabama Open Records Act.
Locally, Lagniappe is being represented by Attorney David McDonald as well as Matt Topic and Merrick Wayne of the Chicago-based firm of Lovey and Lovey.
Reporters were looking into the case independently after being contacted by members of Victor’s family when Topic, who specializes in First Amendment issues, reached out to offer assistance with a records request in the same case. After that request was denied, Topic agreed to represent Lagniappe in this case, with McDonald as local counsel.
The case is set to go before Baldwin County Circuit Court Judge Scott Taylor and an initial pretrial conference is scheduled for May 21.
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