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Resource ID: #26170
Subject: Prisons
Source: KPNX-TV (Phoenix)
Affiliation: 
Date: Feb. 22, 2013

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Description

Wendy Halloran first requested public records from the Arizona Department of Corrections (“ADOC”) in the fall of 2010, shortly after Anthony Lester died at the Manzanita Detention Unit in Tucson. As she investigated the incident, Halloran learned that ADOC officers who responded to the call in Lester's prison cell retrieved a video camera to document the incident. The resulting video depicted the officers' response to Lester's suicide attempt. In June 2011, Halloran first requested that ADOC make a copy of the video available for inspection and copying. However, ADOC denied her request, citing the privacy interests of Lester's surviving family members, who had filed a wrongful death lawsuit against ADOC alleging that ADOC's officers stood by and refused to render first aid to Lester as he bled to death in his cell. Halloran continued reporting on Lester's death, but without the aid of the video that showed what happened. In July 2012, Halloran renewed her public records request for the video. ADOC again denied the request, citing only the privacy concerns of Lester's family. Halloran then contacted the attorney representing Lester's family, who informed Halloran in early September 2012 that the family did not object to disclosure, provided that two small sections of the video in which Lester was partially clothed were redacted. Upon learning that the family did not oppose disclosure, Halloran renewed her public records request on September 6, 2012 with ADOC for the video. Despite Lester's family voicing no objections to disclosure, ADOC again denied Halloran's request, now inexplicably citing Lester's privacy interests. Three days after denying her request, ADOC offered to allow Halloran to view the video, but continued to refuse disclosure of a copy of the video -- despite no distinction in the Arizona Public Records Law between the rights of inspection and copying. On September 20, 2012, Halloran viewed the video. She renewed her request for a copy of the video on September 24, and narrowed her request, seeking only the first 12 minutes of the video that involved ADOC's response to Lester's injuries. ADOC again denied Halloran's request, citing only Lester's “personal privacy” interests - a dubious legal proposition because courts rarely recognize privacy interests of the deceased. Having exhausted all attempts to convince ADOC to comply with the law and release the video, KPNX and Halloran filed a Special Action against ADOC on October 2, 2012. ADOC continued to resist disclosure of the video, first requesting that the case be transferred to the judge who was presiding over the Lester family's wrongful death lawsuit, and then filing two separate responses to the lawsuit. In its responses, ADOC asserted for the first time that disclosure of the video could pose a threat to prison safety and security, and prejudice the jury pool in the civil case. In addition, the agency continued to cite the privacy interests of Lester and his family to oppose disclosure of the video - even though Lester's family did not object to disclosure. On November 21, 2012, Arizona Superior Court Judge David M. Talamante ordered ADOC to produce the video to KPNX and Halloran, finding that ADOC failed to meet its burden to withhold the video under the Arizona Public Records Law. Judge Talamante rejected all of ADOC's arguments, and suggested he was inclined to grant KPNX's request for attorneys' fees. ADOC later agreed to pay more than $26,000.00 in attorneys' fees to KPNX as a result of its wrongful denial of Halloran's public records requests.

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