Finding an open Montgomery restaurant in which to commemorate the rare experience of arguing a case before the Alabama Supreme Court last week took almost as long as the entire time we spent inside the courtroom.
COVID-19 and summertime had rendered the state’s capital a virtual ghost town, and the bug had shut down nearly every place we tried. In the end, we ended up at the RSA Renaissance Hotel at the suggestion of Lagniappe’s attorneys, David McDonald and Blake Barnes, and enjoyed a fantastic lunch in its nearly empty restaurant.
We weren’t celebrating winning our case. The mere fact we’d gotten a chance to argue it was cause enough. It’s certainly nothing this little newspaper has done before, and getting to make your case before the state’s highest court is a rarity in and of itself. We probably won’t know for some time if Mr. McDonald’s eloquent arguments hit the spot with the nine justices — seven present in the room and two listening in by phone. It was a brief-but-memorable experience, as attorneys for each side were limited to making their case in about 20 minutes.
The occasion for our being there revolves around a seemingly simple records request made to the Baldwin County Sheriff’s Office (BCSO) more than a year ago regarding the shooting of Jonathan Victor along the side of I-10 in 2017. Victor was traveling to Florida when his BMW left the roadway and crashed into an adjacent ditch. When firemen and paramedics showed up to help, they say Victor was combative and refused to leave the car. Eventually BCSO was called.
This event was taped by other motorists as well as law enforcement officers, but so far the only video the public has been shown starts just before Victor exits his car. Deputies, already positioned away from the car with weapons drawn, begin screaming at Victor the instant he opens the passenger door. He gets out holding something wrapped in cloth and motions toward deputies and also begins advancing toward them. Sgt. Matt Hunady screams repeatedly at Victor to stop, then shoots him several times with a high-powered rifle.
Victor died later at the hospital, and what he was holding turned out to be a fanny pack. He had no weapons.
Hunady was cleared of any wrongdoing through an investigation by the Baldwin County Major Crimes Unit (MCU), and the grand jury declined to pursue any charges against him. So the case was closed. Lagniappe has simply asked to see all of the footage the BCSO has, because no one has explained how at some point prior to Victor exiting the car a conclusion was made he was a danger.
But our request for records was immediately denied. When we took Sheriff Huey “Hoss” Mack to court over the matter, he argued we hadn’t asked for the records properly and actually should have been asking the MCU. Circuit Court Judge Scott Taylor agreed with Mack, and thus we ended up looking for a restaurant in Montgomery on a hot day in July.
Now even if the justices were swayed by our argument, it still means we have to go back to Baldwin County and try again. That’s a tall order, given the legal shenanigans so common in BaCo. We’ll see if Taylor is cut from a little better cloth than some of his contemporaries on the bench and doesn’t just bend over backwards to help the mortician sheriff.
This case is one everyone should care about, because it is not only about how a man went from getting in a wreck to getting shot holding a fanny pack, but it’s about what rights citizens have to see police records when something like this happens. That is clearly a hot topic nationally.
Why shouldn’t we be able to see the video of what happened in a closed case where the officer was found to have done nothing wrong? They already showed everyone the part where Victor gets killed, so what’s the secret?
Unfortunately, this is the kind of stuff Mack does routinely. Last April one of his deputies chased a car up and down I-10 — appearing to violate almost every BCSO procedure governing car chases. It ended tragically when the suspect turned the car around into oncoming traffic, with the deputy still following, and slammed into a father and son driving through from Georgia. The two men were killed and three people in the car being chased burned to death as well.
But more than a year later there has been no report on the outcome of the investigation. Nothing but crickets. Mack just says it’s still in process. I’ve honestly never seen anything like it. More than a year to investigate a car chase?
Twice during the press conference announcing Hunady’s clearance in Victor’s death, District Attorney Robert Wilters and Daphne Police Capt. Jud Beedy pushed the narrative that the narcotic ketamine was found in Victor’s bloodstream, clearly attempting to imply his strange behavior was drug related. But after this thorough investigation they both should clearly have known the ketamine was administered by medical personnel after he was shot.
Wilters also said Victor may have cut his wrists with scissors found in the car, inferring that he was possibly suicidal. The whole dog-and-pony show seemed geared to keep anyone from asking the obvious question: Who decided Victor was dangerous?
Lagniappe is fortunate McDonald and Barnes donated their time to see this case through, because without that generosity the public would never have a chance to know what happened. We certainly can’t spend the money it would require to take every politician who wants to skirt open records laws to court.
When Hoss Mack discussed body cameras with the Baldwin County Commission in July 2015, his biggest concern was not transparency, but that people would want to see the footage — a sentiment echoed vociferously by the members of the commission.
“I realize there’s a public outcry to have these,” Mack said. “However, one of the misrepresentations is, is once you start down this road, everything is public information.”
There are efforts afoot in the Legislature to put Mack’s worries to rest — to make all body-camera footage off limits to the prying eyes of the public. So why have them at all? My guess is because it helps meet federal criteria so our departments can continue getting grant money.
Hopefully though, before Alabama takes one more step in hiding ever more “public” records from the public, our Supreme Court will see fit to make Hoss explain again why nobody needs to know what happened before Jonathan Victor got killed.
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