The lead law enforcement agency investigating the shooting death of a New Jersey councilwoman is reversing course — and will no longer take media to court to keep records about her death from being made public.
The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office on Tuesday asked a court to block the release of documents several media organizations had requested under the state’s Open Public Records Act — including recordings of 911 calls, arrest reports and surveillance recordings — after Sayreville Councilwoman Eunice Dwunfour was shot and killed outside her home.
But less than a day later, Assistant Prosecutor Joe Jakuback sent media organizations — including Gothamist — a letter saying the office would voluntarily withdraw the case.
Jakuback’s letter said the prosecutor’s office disagreed that the case amounted to “frivolous litigation,” responding to a message from an attorney for the Gannett newspaper chain. But it said withdrawing was “a practical and alternative recommendation, which is in the interest of justice.”
Another letter to the court from attorney Keith J. Miller, representing the company that publishes NJ.com and the Star-Ledger, had described the prosecutor’s office’s complaint as “baseless” — saying it didn’t even assert reasons under the public records law why access should be denied. It said the prosecutor’s office can’t initiate a suit based on its own decision to deny records.
Law enforcement agencies frequently deny requests for public records, citing privacy concerns or the possibility that release of a document could compromise an ongoing investigation. If a requester isn’t satisfied with that answer, that person can sue, and try to convince a court the record should be released.
Miller’s letter noted the prosecutor’s office hadn’t even issued denials to the records requests.
Government transparency advocates had described the unusual legal maneuver as an intimidation tactic — one that could dissuade members of the public from exercising their right to request public records, for fear of being taken to court.
Walter Leurs, an attorney specializing in the state’s public records law described it as “prosecutor’s gone wild” and an “aggressive and unnecessary maneuver.”
The filing named journalists working for several other media, outlets including the Associated Press, CBS and ABC.
A spokesperson for the prosecutor’s office, Brynn Krause, has refused to answer questions about the case since the morning of Feb. 2, when the agency identified Dwumfour as the victim of the shooting.
For a week, enforcement authorities refused to say if there are suspects in the shooting or if they have a suspected motive. Wednesday, at an unrelated event, county Prosecutor Yolanda Ciccone for the first time said authorities did not believe there was an ongoing threat to the community, NJ.com reported.
Krause’s emails to Gothamist have included a link to the prosecutor’s office’s Open Public Records Act request form.
The prosecutor’s office’s now-withdrawn filing, made in Middlesex County Superior Court, had argued that disclosing the records would harm the privacy of the deceased councilwoman and her family, and compromise prosecutors’ ability to secure a just conviction. It said the case would be “severely hampered” if possible suspects had access to the records.
The filing didn’t explain why the prosecutor’s office didn’t simply deny any public records requests it thought would be exempt from disclosure under the law initially.
Jakuback’s letter said the prosecutor’s office would now respond to each media organization’s requests individually.