Judge denies Inquirer request for Sheridan documents

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File: Cooper Health System CEO John P. Sheridan Jr. and his wife, Joyce.

A New Jersey Superior Court judge has rebuffed The Inquirer's attempts to obtain a slew of records pertaining to the six-month investigation into the deaths of Cooper Health System CEO John P. Sheridan Jr. and his wife, Joyce.

Judge Yolanda Ciccone in Somerville dismissed the newspaper's lawsuit pursuing the documents - including law enforcement recordings and transcripts, witness interviews, crime scene reports, DNA tests, and warrants - which were previously denied by government agencies under the state's Open Public Records Act and the common-law right of access.

"We are disappointed by the court's ruling and continue to believe the public should be permitted to scrutinize the investigative documents," said Eli Segal, an attorney at Pepper Hamilton who represented The Inquirer.

The case was filed in June by Inquirer reporters Barbara Boyer and Melanie Burney and New Jersey editor Julie Busby against the county Prosecutor's Office, Montgomery Township, the state Attorney General's Office, and the New Jersey State Police. Ciccone's decision Aug. 21 was circulated to attorneys in the case Thursday, weeks before the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 28, 2014, deaths of the couple.

The 72-year-old health industry executive, who previously worked as a state transportation commissioner, and his 69-year-old wife, a retired teacher, were found amid an early morning fire in the master bedroom of their home in Skillman. Officials said the two had died that morning but did not publicly disclose the circumstances of the deaths for several months, even as news accounts reported that both had been stabbed.

In March, Somerset County Prosecutor Geoffrey D. Soriano issued a lengthy news release concluding that Sheridan had stabbed his wife and himself, and set the bedroom on fire. The murder-suicide ruling was immediately criticized by the couple's four grown sons, particularly Mark Sheridan, a prominent Republican lawyer, who contended investigators too early treated the case as a domestic dispute.

The Sheridan family lambasted the probe as a "bungling," pointing out that a weapon used on John Sheridan was never positively identified and no motive was determined.

Throughout the investigation and after its conclusion, The Inquirer sought documents and information from the agencies involved in the case. In June, the reporters and editor sued local and state authorities in a bid to obtain the withheld records.

In court filings and at a July 31 hearing, government attorneys countered that disclosure of investigatory records, such as witness interviews, could have a negative impact on future investigations, and that such records were not required to be made available under the Open Public Records Act. As for the requests under common law, they argued that The Inquirer had not established a compelling interest that outweighed the state's nondisclosure.

Ciccone concurred with those arguments. She wrote in a letter explaining the outcome that the release of witness statements, for example, would "dissuade witnesses from giving their account of an incident to law enforcement agencies, depriving law enforcement of a vital necessity."

The decision prominently cited a June appellate ruling that overturned a decision granting North Jersey Media Group access to certain documents in a fatal police-involved shooting in Bergen County.


afichera@philly.com

856-779-3917 @AJFichera