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Denial of access to police video comes too late

Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert’s ruling against the Mail Tribune’s request for video footage of a year-old arrest attempts to prevent tainting the arrested man’s upcoming trial. But her decision essentially amounts to locking the barn after the horse has escaped.

Noel Palomera-Vasquez is scheduled to face trial next month on charges of second-degree trespassing, resisting arrest, assault of a public safety officer and interfering with a peace officer. The incident that led to the charges occurred Jan. 25, 2021, when Medford police officers were called to the Circle K at Barnett Road and South Riverside Avenue.

After Palomera-Vasquez told officers he was high on methamphetamine, they used a Taser and focused blows to his head and other parts of his body to restrain him. Palomera-Vasquez’ attorneys say he suffered injuries in the encounter, that the officers used excessive force, and that he may file a civil lawsuit against the city.

Meanwhile in an effort to provide our readers with a full report, the Mail Tribune requested body camera and dash-cam videos taken that night. The city denied the request, and the newspaper appealed that decision to Heckert, who has the authority to overrule the city under state public records laws.

City Attorney Eric Mitton said releasing the video could expose potential jurors to evidence in advance of the trial. Heckert upheld that decision.

The problem is, the footage is already public, because attorneys for Palomera-Vasquez provided it to The Oregonian and television station KDRV in December, and it has been available online since, and still is.

Mitton also noted in his response to the newspaper’s request that it is “unprofessional” for an attorney to exploit public information to enhance one side of a pending case. The attorneys declined to provide the video to the Mail Tribune when asked, perhaps for that reason.

It was a little late for that, and in any case, that is not the newspaper’s concern.

Our job is to inform our readers by giving them as complete a report as possible. If we thought that might jeopardize a criminal prosecution, we would certainly take that into consideration. But in this case, the material we requested has already been made public. It is difficult to see how granting us the same access that other news outlets already have could further affect potential jurors.

The concept of “tainting” a jury pool is outdated in any case. In the age of the internet, when information is shared instantly, 24 hours a day, it’s not possible to contain it after it has been posted.

Attorneys in jury trials have the opportunity to question prospective jurors and to dismiss them if they have seen news reports about the case in question. That should be sufficient to ensure a fair trial.

The video footage in this case raises serious questions about the conduct of the officers involved, and the public deserves to see it and decide for themselves.