SALT LAKE CITY — The State Records Committee ruled Thursday that the body camera video from two Salt Lake police officers of the shooting of 17-year-old Abdi Mohamed should be released to the public.
Saying that the city and county government had not adequately provided a good explanation of how releasing the video would potentially prejudice a jury and violate Mohamed's right to a fair trial, committee members voted unanimously that the long-sought-after video should be released.
In addition, the board voted to release two surveillance videos collected from the area that also show some of the events of Feb. 27, 2016.
The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office still has 30 days to appeal the decision before any video is actually released — something deputy district attorney Darcy Goddard believes will happen.
"We'll look at it more carefully, but the inclination right now is to appeal," she said after Thursday's hearing.
Mohamed was shot four times on Rio Grande Street near the homeless shelter by Salt Lake police officers Kory Checketts and Jordan Winegar after they saw him holding a 3-foot pole and he disobeyed their commands to drop it, according to a report from the district attorney's office. The officers said they believed the boy was about to use the metal broom handle to hit a man again when they fired.
The officers' actions were determined to be legally justified by District Attorney Sim Gill. Mohamed, who turned 18 about two months after the incident, was charged in juvenile court with aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony, and drug distribution, a second-degree felony. Prosecutors are seeking to have him certified as an adult.
Mohamed remained in a coma for weeks after the shooting and was in a wheelchair when he arrived for his first court hearing.
Since the shooting, several groups — including a media coalition consisting of the Deseret News and others, as well as the American Civil Liberties Union — have tried unsuccessfully on numerous attempts to have the body camera footage released to the public.
On Thursday, the State Records Committee heard the ACLU's latest arguments on why the video should be released under the Government Records Access and Management Act.
"The video is of critical public importance. It is not subject to any exception under GRAMA. It's been improperly withheld by the county. And it's been almost a year since this shooting happened. We think the public is entitled to see for themselves what happened," attorney David Reymann, who represented the ACLU, said Thursday.
Reymann argued that Gill uses "policy preference" within his department when determining what evidence to release. He said withholding evidence by claiming there's still an "ongoing investigation" does not work in this case.
"The investigation is over, that was their first excuse. Once the investigation was over they moved on to their next justification which is, 'Now we think it will interfere with the trial.' So the sum total of all of this is that the public never gets to see the evidence until the investigation is over, the trial is over and all the critical decisions have already been made," Reymann said.
Mohamed was not charged with getting shot by police, he said, so there's no reason not to release video of the officer-involved shooting.
"Courts deal with evidence that is within the public domain every single day," Reymann told the committee. "The fact it is out there does not interfere with proceedings."
Goddard, however, said it was "incorrect" for the ACLU to claim Gill used policy preference.
"When the ACLU accuses us of wanting to withhold everything, that is simply a lie," she told the committee.
After the hearing, Goddard further commented, "I think we had a robust hearing, we had good questions, there was very good advocacy on the other side. I think this is all part of the process. And my office has always contended it's not that we don't want to release the video, it's that we want to release it at the right time and with the right authority. And for us, that includes a decision from a court."
Goddard believes it should be up to a judge to decide whether the video should be released publicly.
Furthermore, she said while the shooting portion of the video is only about 25 seconds long, the entire 12-minute video shows evidence of the crimes for which Mohamed is currently charged, and contradicts statements Mohamed has made since the shooting, which may compromise his credibility in court if the video is released now.
Goddard said the district attorney's office has struggled over whether to release the video to the public, calling it a "borderline" decision. But ultimately her office decided, "(The defendant's) interests outweigh the public’s interest in this case."
Reymann, however, said what is on the video is open to interpretation.
"Different people have come to different conclusions about what it shows," he said. "My interpretation of it, and I’ve seen it, is radically different from Mr. Gill’s."2 comments on this story
When making its decision, the committee noted that there have been plenty of other high-profile criminal cases in the past, such as the trial of Brian David Mitchell and the Lafferty brothers, that had a lot of pre-trial press coverage. None have resulted in a mistrial due to pre-trial publicity.
Of further concern was the report released by the Police Civilian Review Board in September that found the officers were not within the Salt Lake City Police Department's policy of when to use deadly force. The report outlined in detail the confrontation between Mohamed and the officers, leaving the committee to ponder whether a verbal description of the events that was already public is equivalent to a video recording of the event being public.