A New York State justice, ignoring the routine ability of defendants to secure a fair trial in spite of publicity, turned her back on the public’s right to see what went on in a city jail last May when an inmate was thrashed within an inch of his life.
A jail employee has been charged with a federal crime: deprivation of rights under color of law. For that, Matthew Jaskula faces a maximum of 10 years in prison. Supreme Court Justice Tracey A. Bannister, paying no mind to the city’s primary argument, ruled that a video recording of the beating will remain secret pending the criminal trial and maybe even until after a likely civil lawsuit.
In opposing The Buffalo News’ lawsuit to make the video public, a lawyer for the City of Buffalo argued – speciously – that the video constituted a personnel matter that must, by law, remain secret.
Bannister disregarded that argument and instead focused on the need to preserve Jaskula’s right to a fair trial. “When we have a chance to prevent a video from infecting a jury pool, we should,” she said.
But it’s a non-issue. The state has a history of producing unbiased juries even when pretrial publicity has been extensive. Bannister bought the demonstrably false line that releasing the video would compromise Jaskula’s right to a fair trial.
The judge’s job was to ensure that all rights were protected, including those of Buffalo’s taxpayers to know exactly what happened in the jail they pay to operate. She turned her back on them, based on the false reasoning that she had to choose between Jaskula and the public. She didn’t. Releasing the video would have served the public without jeopardizing Jaskula.
What is more, there are other ways to protect a defendant’s rights. Even if Bannister were convinced that releasing the videotape would prejudice the jury pool, she could move the trial to another county. And, of course, jurors are going to see the video eventually, in any case.
The recording is, from all accounts, shocking. Richard S. Binko, a lawyer for the victim of the attack, Shaun Porter, once wanted it released but changed his mind. Telling the judge that Porter has undergone treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, he argued that the video could harm his client.
“I don’t know if you have seen this tape,” Binko told the judge. “This tape is brutal.”
Given the description of the attack, “brutal” seems an insufficient descriptor. According to court papers – which, thankfully, have not been suppressed – Jaskula ordered the handcuffed Porter to face a wall, grabbed him from behind and shoved him face-first into a door. Porter fell, striking his face on a shelf before hitting the floor face-first.
With his victim unresponsive, the papers say Jaskula grabbed him again and dragged him to an open cell, where he again struck his head, this time on a door frame. Porter, who was already bleeding profusely, bled some more.
Jaskula then placed Porter in a restraint chair and left him without medical attention for about 75 minutes, according to prosecutors. And then he lied about it, telling two lieutenants that Porter had a bloody nose and was refusing medical treatment, according to the criminal complaint.
This is what the public already knows. The video may confirm it and it may be shocking, but it would do nothing but confirm – or, theoretically, disprove – what is already on the public record.
The judge erred. She could have protected everyone’s rights but chose to stiff the public that pays the bills. The decision should be reversed.