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RJ seeks fees from attorney of Las Vegas shooting victim’s widow

The Las Vegas Review-Journal is seeking legal fees from the attorney of an Oct. 1 victim’s widow following a complex case over the attempted suppression of already released public records.

At the center of the case is the redacted autopsy report of Charleston Hartfield, one of the 58 concertgoers killed during the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting. Hartfield, an off-duty Las Vegas police officer, was attending the festival with his wife.

“Counsel for the Hartfield Parties can and should be held personally responsible for fees and costs in this matter,” according to the recently filed motion. The motion does not seek any fees from Hartfield’s family.

In the aftermath of the shooting, the Review-Journal and The Associated Press requested redacted copies of each victim’s autopsy report. When the Clark County coroner’s office refused the request, the media organizations sued, and a judge in January ordered the records released.

More than 100 media organizations then received copies of the redacted reports, a county official said.

The Hartfield case was born about a week later, when his widow, Veronica Hartfield, sued the Review-Journal and AP, asking Clark County District Judge Richard Scotti to bar the two publications from possessing or reporting on the officer’s “private and confidential” autopsy report.

Siding with the widow, the judge ordered the Review-Journal and AP to cease reporting and destroy their copies of Hartfield’s report. But the names of all Oct. 1 victims were blacked out on the autopsy reports.

”The Review-Journal and other media outlets were never able to report specifically on Mr. Hartfield’s autopsy because they couldn’t identify his report,” Review-Journal Executive Editor Glenn Cook said. “Moreover, it was impossible for the Review-Journal and AP to destroy or hand over Mr. Hartfield’s report because his name didn’t appear on it.

“Because the judge attempted to block the publication of a lawfully obtained public record — and threatened to have government officers come to our newsroom to illegally seize records — the Review-Journal had no choice but to fight an obviously unconstitutional ruling,” Cook said.

The Nevada Supreme Court soon overturned the judge’s decision, arguing that it violated the First Amendment.

But Veronica Hartfield’s lawyer, Anthony Sgro, continued to pursue the case in court. In response, the Review-Journal and AP filed a motion to stop the case and won.

By law, their victory allowed the publications to seek legal fees — in this case, from Hartfield’s attorneys, the motion argues.

“Clients, particularly clients who are suffering from the grief of losing a loved one, rely on their attorneys to provide them accurate advice and guidance,” the motion reads. “Sometimes that requires an attorney to tell clients that the relief they want is not legally available. Mr. Sgro’s refusal to do so, thus unreasonably extending this case and exposing his already-suffering client to potential liability, is a wholesale dereliction of his professional duties.”

“Holding Mr. Sgro and his firm personally liable for any awards granted to the Media Parties is therefore appropriate to deter similar misconduct in the future,” the motion continues.

In a phone call Friday, Sgro called the motion seeking fees “a disgusting course of action.”

“One need only read the motion to understand that they were originally seeking fees directly from the victim’s widow in this case,” he said.

Cook said Sgro’s assertion was completely false.

KLAS-TV, Channel 8 erroneously reported on Thursday that the Review-Journal was seeking legal fees from Hartfield’s family. The station corrected the story on Friday.

“From the beginning, this case was about the importance of protecting press freedoms and access to public records,” Cook said. “Channel 8’s reporting on this story was a disservice on that front, as well as to Veronica Hartfield. Anthony Sgro is the one responsible for extending the duration of this pointless, expensive litigation, which is why he was the focus of the motion. This case was a loser from the start and Mr. Sgro had an obligation to explain that to Mrs. Hartfield. ”

Contact Rachel Crosby at rcrosby@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3801. Follow @rachelacrosby on Twitter.

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