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Editorial: Suppression of jail video flies in the face of the public's right to know

Another day, another excuse. Neither the administration of Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown nor the state judge it has bamboozled wants the public to see what went on inside the city jail last year. Both are violating their oaths and insulting the public that trusted them with their offices.

The issue is the jailhouse video that documented the vicious beating of an inmate by a jailer, now fired. Shaun Porter was brutalized, based on descriptions of what Matthew Jaskula did to him as police officers watched and did nothing. Jaskula was arrested when more-senior officers caught on and blew the whistle. Jaskula was charged with a federal crime and pleaded guilty.

The Buffalo News went to court in an effort to force the release of the recording, but State Supreme Court Justice Tracey A. Bannister ruled that the video should not be made public because of the risk of tainting the jury pool. It was a dodge. Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys know that with appropriate care, they can select an impartial jury and still ensure that the public has access to information that is important and to which it is entitled.

When Jaskula pleaded guilty in May, prosecutors said they had no further objection to releasing the video. But now Brown has come up with another delaying tactic: Because Porter has filed a civil lawsuit against the city and police officers – the kind of lawsuit that is routinely settled out of court – his administration has again conned Bannister into violating the public’s right to know what went on in the jail that their tax dollars fund.

It gets worse, with Bannister also fretting that release of the tape might embarrass Porter. She’s right, of course. It might. But potential embarrassment has never been a justification for violating the public trust. Judges are supposed to be guided by the law, not some fanciful idea of protecting adults from discomfort or pleasing influential politicians.

What is more, it was Porter who filed the lawsuit – as was his right and, one might even argue under the circumstances, his duty. That presupposes that the issues are in some way public, as is the evidence supporting them.

Cowardice is also at play here. With Brown and Bannister working to thwart the public interest, an appellate court judge may be needed to set them straight. They could then wash their hands of the outcome when they are overruled, as they surely would be. The News will continue the fight.

This case was no ordinary matter of excessive use of force. According to the affidavit of an FBI agent, the recording shows Jaskula shoving Porter into a door and then to the floor. The defendant’s face reportedly hit a shelf as he fell. The jailer then dragged Porter to a cell, and his face hit a door frame during the journey. All the while, Porter “does not, and appears incapable of, offering any physical resistance,” the agent wrote.

After lies about the reasons for Porter’s injuries collapsed, the inmate was taken to Erie County Medical Center and treated for a broken nose, and sutures were applied to a cut near his right eye, the affidavit says.

The attack on the inmate was shocking, but so is the government assault on the public’s right to this information. The judge should reverse herself.

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