Michael Giudicessi, a Des Moines attorney who is representing the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, asked U.S. Senior District Judge James Gritzner to release sealed court documents into the 2015 fatal police shooting of the 34-year-old Steele.
In his motion to unseal the records, Giudicessi said “such secrecy undermines the accountability of government officials and the public’s acceptance of any result reached through use of the federal judiciary.”
He said his request to intervene is for the “limited purpose of seeking public access to court records in this matter.”
“The reason we are here today is to ask the court to unseal the records, not to make constitutional law,” he told Gritzner during a 90-minute hearing Wednesday morning. “There is no compelling basis to keep these documents secret. The court records should be released to the public … This is a public safety issue.”
Gritzner sealed several court documents last year after a joint request by the plaintiffs and defendants to do so. David O’Brien, a Cedar Rapids attorney who represents members of Steele’s family in the federal lawsuit, later asked the court to unseal the records, which was denied at the time.
According to Giudicessi, of the 78 docket entries in the lawsuit, as of June 6, some 33 (42 percent) related to requests to file matters in secret.
“Absent any action by this Court to reverse the ‘sealing’ orders, the court’s records and workings and the facts underlying the police killing of a young woman in Burlington, Iowa, will remain shielded from public scrutiny,” Giudicessi said. “Such secrecy undermines the accountability of government officials and the public’s acceptance of any result reached through the use of the federal judiciary.”
O’Brien also told Gritzner the documents should be unsealed.
He also said it’s also important for the public to know why Burlington police and the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation are working so hard to keep the documents sealed.
“Burlington set out to exonerate officer Hill instead of finding out what the facts were,” he told Gritzner, suggesting that’s why the defendants decided to settle the case for $2 million rather than go to trial Aug. 20.
Martha Shaff, a Davenport attorney representing Burlington and officer Jesse Hill, told Gritzner her clients have released all the information they were allowed to release under Iowa Code regarding open records.
“I don’t think there has been an attempt (by the city) to hide anything,” she said, in asking Gritzner to keep the records sealed. “They were just following Iowa code … The public has already seen the shooting on the 12-second (video) that was released to the public.”
Randy Evans, the executive director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, said his organization filed the motion seeking to unseal the documents because it was disturbed by the federal court’s decision to seal numerous documents in the the wrongful death lawsuit.
“The fundamental issue is (the fact) these documents being sealed by the court,” Evans said, shortly after the council’s motion was filed. “The public is being cutoff from access to the motions and arguments … The sealing of the records prevents the public the right to look at these documents … They need to be unsealed.”
• The 911 call made by Gabriel Steele;
• Body camera videos worn by officers Jesse Hill and Tim Merryman;
• Excerpts of sworn deposition testimony by Hill;
• Medical records of Hill regarding injuries he received from the dog attacking him;
• Police narrative report by Hill;
• Deposition testimony from Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation special agent Matthew George; and
Although attorneys on both sides have told Gritzner the lawsuit has been settled, there are still some details that need to be worked out regarding Steele’s minor children before the settlement can be formally submitted to Gritzner.
The judge gave the parties until Aug. 10 to present the settlement agreement to him.
Steele’s family filed the lawsuit almost two years after the 34-year-old was shot and killed in January 2015 by Hill during a domestic disturbance between her and her husband at the couple’s Burlington home.
Named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Gabriel Steele, Autumn Steele’s husband; her two young sons, who were 3 and 6 years old at the time of her death; and her mother, Gina Colbert.
Attorneys representing Hill and the city of Burlington indicated Hill was acting in self-defense when he attempted to shoot the family’s growling dog, who Hill said was attacking him. When he pulled his service weapon, he slipped on ice and fell to the ground as his gun went off, striking Steele instead.
She died a short time later at Great River Medical Center, where she was being treated for gunshot wound to the chest.
At one point during Wednesday’s hearing, attorneys discussed if releasing the sealed documents would violate Hill’s privacy rights regarding his medical treatment.
Both Guidicessi and O’Brien said it is unlikely the release of the medical records involving Hill’s treatment after the shooting would violate his privacy.
O’Brien, who is under court order to not publicly comment outside the courtroom on facts that remained sealed, told Gritzner in court that Hill’s injuries were minor at best.
“He didn’t even need a Band-Aid to cover the injury,” he said, adding a press release from the DCI “greatly exaggerated” his injuries, saying they were non-life threatening injuries.
Following the arguments by the attorneys, Gritzner asked Shaff if he did decide to unseal the documents how long it would take for her office to redact “personal identifiers” such as date of birth and social security numbers of the people whose name might be contained the in sealed documents.
She said it would likely take two weeks.
In addition, Gritzner also informed the attorneys at the end of the hearing he would issue his decision regarding the unsealing for courts without regard to the Iowa Public Information Board complaint that is currently before Administrative Law Judge Karen Doland.
Gritzner said he would issue his ruling on the council’s request as soon as possible. He gave no timetable when that would be.