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Judge reconsiders gag order on Jo'Anna Bird police report

Copy of an undated photo of Jo'Anna Bird

Copy of an undated photo of Jo'Anna Bird with her children. Credit: Handout

A federal judge signaled he is reconsidering his sweeping gag order shielding a secret police report about how Nassau police failed to protect domestic violence victim Jo'Anna Bird from her eventual killer.

Nassau officials have repeatedly interpreted Judge Arthur Spatt's gag order to mean that virtually anything connected to the case -- from the secret report itself to tangential files on Bird and murderer Leonardo Valdez-Cruz -- can never be released. Newsday and News 12 Networks have sued to overturn the months-old gag order, arguing that it's overbroad and that it infringes on their right to gather and report the news.

Bird, 24, of New Cassel, was slain in March 2009 by Valdez-Cruz, her estranged boyfriend and father of one of her two children. She had tried to end the relationship with Valdez-Cruz, now 27, but he stabbed her so many times, including in the eyes, that the medical examiner was unable to count the wounds. He was convicted the next year of first-degree murder by torture, burglary and more and is imprisoned for life.

Her mother, Sharon Dorsett, later sued the county -- a suit settled earlier this year for $7.7 million -- alleging officers repeatedly ignored protective orders shielding Bird from Valdez-Cruz, refusing to arrest him for violating those orders.

That and other misdeeds are among the issues explored in the still-secret internal affairs report, which totals more than 700 pages. More than three years after the slaying, the public doesn't know for sure what, if any, discipline the cops faced, or even how many officers were investigated.

In June, Spatt held in contempt now-deceased Legislative Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt because he revealed on News 12 that 22 cops had been investigated and that police gave Valdez-Cruz a cellphone in jail that he used to harass Bird as many as 40 times.

Jacob Goldstein, an attorney for the news organizations, said that the censorship of the report is infringing not only the public's right to know but the county legislature's right to hold police oversight hearings.

The gag order appears to cover all documents related to the case -- even those created separately from and long before Dorsett's suit.

The county says that state law protects police personnel files from public disclosure.

Seth Greenberg, an attorney for the cops' union, the Nassau Police Benevolent Association, said releasing the report would jeopardize the thoroughness of internal affairs investigations with which officers must cooperate or risk their jobs. Fred Brewington, who was given the report while representing Dorsett in the suit, countered that publicizing substantiated internal probes would bolster their value, ensuring reforms are made and misconduct isn't swept under the rug.

Spatt said at a hearing Thursday that he would think about the gag order and issue a ruling. Even lifting the order wouldn't necessarily make the report public. Under one scenario, Spatt could keep the order for parties in Dorsett's case but allow the public to seek the report by other means, such as state open records laws.

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