Lawyers pitched their arguments Thursday to Circuit Judge Frank Addy as to whether to dismiss LaKrystal Coats lawsuit aiming to stop the sheriff's office from releasing information it has already declined to release.
After hearing each side, Addy took the arguments into consideration and will rule on the Index-Journal's motion to dismiss Coats's suit at a later time.
Months after Demetric Cowan died in custody at the Greenwood County Detention Center on March 13, 2016, his widow -- Coats -- filed a complaint asking a judge to block the release of records the Index-Journal requested that would shed light on details of Cowan's final moments.
In the request sent to then-Sheriff Tony Davis on March 13 -- and a subsequent request to Sheriff Dennis Kelly -- the Index-Journal asked for surveillance video that would show the medical emergency that led to Cowan's death, and how detention center staff responded to the emergency. Though video leading up to the medical emergency was provided, both sheriffs declined to provide further video.
"This is an attempt to re-write the laws of FOIA," said Columbia-based attorney Taylor Smith on behalf of the Index-Journal.
Smith argued that Coats' complaint should be dismissed because it failed to show a violation of the Freedom of Information Act and doesn't demonstrate any harm done to Cowan's family -- since the section of video at stake hasn't been released. He also said that the argument that releasing the video would be an invasion of privacy didn't hold water since Cowan didn't have an expectation of privacy in jail, and even if he did, it did not survive his death.
Greenwood attorney Charles Grose, who represented Coats in the hearing, said the language in the Freedom of Information Act allows for any person to seek that a judge weigh in on their rights regarding the FOIA. He added that if the court does dismiss Coats, the sheriff's denial of the request still stands.
He also argued that surveillance video showing the details of Cowan's death -- and how detention center staff responded -- could constitute a medical record.
"That document of Mr. Cowan's medical crisis could be construed as a medical record," he said.
Rusty Harter, attorney for the Greenwood County Sheriff's Office and coroner's office, agreed.
"I don't care whether it's in the jail... a medical event that's captured on video is a medical record," he said.
If Coats' complaint is not dismissed, Grose told Addy the next step would be to have a trial on whether to grant an injunction barring the release of the records.
"I think it's just a matter of law for a court to determine," he said.
Addy asked Smith what Coats' remedy would be if the requested video was released.
"There's an argument at the very least that it's in poor taste to publish someone's final moments like this," he said. "Taking your last breaths -- that's possibly the most private thing imaginable."
Without the opportunity to review the video, Smith said the Index-Journal hasn't had the chance to determine if it would be ethical journalism to publish it. At the heart of it, he said the video would show how quickly detention center staff responded to the emergency.
"That's the story, frankly your honor, the Index-Journal wants to shed light on," he said.
Contact staff writer Damian Dominguez at 864-634-7548 or follow on Twitter @IJDDOMINGUEZ.