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The New Hampshire Center for Public Interest Journalism has filed a motion supporting release of footage from body cameras worn by two Haverhill police officers as well as footage from a cruiser camera when the two officers shot a man to death in July in Bath.
In court records obtained Sept. 2, the victim’s family argues there is “no legitimate reason to release the videos.”
The center and its nonprofit investigative news website, InDepthNH.org, filed a friend of the court brief Tuesday supporting release in this case, which is believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.
InDepthNH.org’s filing in Merrimack County Superior Court in Concord supports motions filed by the ACLU-NH and a number of news organizations seeking release of the fatal shooting of Hagen Esty-Lennon on July 6.
Attorney General Joseph Foster concluded the shooting was legally justified and had planned to release the footage. Authorities said Esty-Lennon had been involved in a car crash when he lunged at police with a knife just before being shot.
A judge delayed the release last month after Esty-Lennon’s former wife, Lisa Esty-Lennon on behalf of her minor children, asked the court to stop the release.
“The Esty-Lennon family’s right to privacy and the emotional and psychological harm which release of Hagen Esty-Lennon’s graphic, violent and gruesome death will have on his family outweigh the public’s right to know,” wrote James Laura of the McGrath Law Firm.
“There is no legitimate reason for the release of the videos,” Laura concluded in the memorandum of law filed Sept. 1.
Attorney Rick Gagliuso of Merrimack, representing InDepthNH.org, said the footage will inform the public about the conduct and activities of their government.
As Foster’s report of the incident makes clear, the footage constitutes the best visual evidence of the circumstances of the shooting and the response of the two police officers to such circumstances.
“The video is of critical importance in permitting the public to assess the reasonableness of the their response,” Gagliuso wrote.
The privacy interests of Esty-Lennon’s children must yield to the public interest under these circumstances, Gagliuso wrote.
Without the opportunity to view the videotapes, InDepthNH.org is unable to assess their alleged graphic nature or their potential to impact viewers, Gagliuso said.
“Ms. Esty-Lennon has not established, however, to InDepthNH’s knowledge, that her children would likely be exposed to the police video if it were released to the public and the media, or that they could not effectively be shielded from it,” Gagliuso wrote. InDepthNH.org’s brief supports the ACLU-NH and disclosure to the Valley News, the Union Leader Corporation, and Hearst Properties, Inc. (including WMUR-TV) as well.
Gilles Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU-NH, said: “This is the first open records case in the country that the ACLU-NH is aware of where a court has been asked to decide whether body camera footage of a fatal police shooting should be disclosed under a state’s open records laws over a family’s privacy objections.”
It is an important issue with the potential to invade privacy, Bissonnette said in a news release.
“While the privacy interests raised by Mr. Esty-Lennon’s family are real and should be carefully balanced by the Court, the public’s competing interest in seeing uniquely reliable evidence of the law enforcement response to a person apparently in severe emotional distress, which resulted in the person’s death, is stronger,” Bissonnette wrote.
Society gives few government officials as much authority as the power given to police to take human life based on split-second judgments, Bissonnette said.
“Thus, the public has a correspondingly compelling interest in understanding how the police exercise that authority, particularly when lethal force is used on individuals suffering from mental health crises.
“The public’s interest in disclosure is even more acute where there are, as counsel for Mr. Esty-Lennon’s estate has acknowledged, still open questions about the use of force in this case and whether de-escalation techniques could have been utilized that would have lessened the need for lethal force.” Bissonnette said.
“These questions can only be answered through disclosure of the videos in question, especially where the videos appear to be the only neutral evidence available,” Bissonnette said.
InDepthNH.org will post original documents when possible. The New Hampshire Judicial Branch today released 11 documents, including a petition, a position statement, an order, motions and memorandums of law, in Estate of Hagen Esty-Lennon v. State of New Hampshire (#217-2015-CV-00376) that are now posted on the NH Judicial Branch website in the “Frequently Requested Cases” section. Click below on the link to the 11 documents.
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