Documents behind bars: The experience of a writer versus the state of Ohio
by Dennis Whitehead
Between December 1965 into December 1966, Cincinnati was gripped by fear and racial tension stoked by a series of strangulation murders and sexual assaults upon mostly older White women by a Black man. A license plate number recorded at the time of an attempted assault netted 29-year-old Posteal Laskey, Jr. Laskey was held on charges of attempted assault and parole violation, later charged with the August 1966 murder of Barbara Bowman. Laskey was convicted of first-degree murder in April 1967 and sentenced to death. The sentence was commuted to life resulting in Laskey spending 40 years in custody of the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) without hope of parole. Laskey died in prison in 2007. Convicted of one murder, the legacy of Posteal Laskey, Jr. is that of the Cincinnati Strangler, a man responsible for all the murders and assaults.
I started research for a book on the Cincinnati Strangler based upon the victims’ lives. Chapters were written but Laskey’s prison life remained uncovered. Correspondence with the ODRC yielded interesting yet incomplete results. An inquiry for parole records was limited as the ODRC blocked release of public comments that weighed heavily in parole hearings. Here, lawyers for the state entered the picture and the research ground to a halt. The only option available was a lawsuit against the ODRC in the Ohio Court of Claims.
The cost for the filing was only $25.00 but what ensued over more than a year still holds disastrous ramifications going forward.
Two judges, a special master, three mediation sessions, and three attorneys representing the state against a self-represented writer.
Familiarity with Federal FOIA filings engendered an approach akin to a FOIA appeal but litigation is entirely different. The Requester must be fully versed in Ohio law as the state does not recognize Federal FOIA statutes or common law, and citing them can be counterproductive. You must be fully versed in procedures and formats, without any assistance from the court, with direction from opaque statutes. Regardless of argument and precedent, my case was dispensed over postage, or “proof of service,” a clerical error on my part.
As publishers lack budgets to pursue legal action costing many thousands of dollars, the onus falls on the individual writer seeking public records the government, at every level, does not wish to reveal. In Laskey’s case, ODRC holds over 4,000 pages almost entirely excluded as “medical records.”
The Ohio Supreme Court in CNN v. Bellbrook-Sugar Creek denied media access to school records of a deceased mass shooter based upon the Ohio Student Privacy Act, evoked by the state opposing access to Laskey’s records, but the two bear no relation, further calling for legislative remediation.
The bedrock principle of the Ohio Public Records Act is broad access to public records where doubts over access are resolved in favor of disclosure. Unlike common law and FOIA where privacy rights do not extend into death, Ohio statutes muddy the issue of the privacy rights of the deceased.
My case hinged upon a vague statute, R.C. 5120.21(F), regarding ORDC records that makes no differentiation being living and dead individuals, and fails to clearly define records of individuals no longer in ODRC custody or supervision.
This issue is nothing new as counsel for the state cited the 1973 case of Stewart v. Trumbull: “If the General Assembly intended for R.C. 5120.21(F) to expire upon the death of an inmate, then they must expressly indicate their intent to lift the shield of confidentiality…”
The stubborn resistance of the ODRC and attorney general against releasing Laskey’s records augurs a tightening of disclosures, harkening the state legislature to revisit the issues of access to public records.
Those thinking about pursuing document litigation must read Access With Attitude, a book specifically written on the topic of access to Ohio public records, written by First Amendment attorney David Marburger and journalist Karl Idsvoog.