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SD court rules against journalist in lawsuit seeking access to Richard Benda's death records

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SIOUX FALLS, South Dakota — A South Dakota circuit judge has ruled against a journalist in a lawsuit seeking more information about the death of former state economic development director Richard Benda.

The ruling from Circuit Judge Kathleen Trandahl released Tuesday states that Attorney General Marty Jackley was justified in not releasing details of Benda's death out of privacy concerns for the deceased man's immediate family members, including his daughter, who is a teenager.

"A mere suspicion is not enough to outweigh the privacy interests, the presumption of innocence, protection of the criminal process, and protection of the decedent's minor child," Trandahl wrote.

Journalist Bob Mercer, who writes for several daily newspapers, filed the lawsuit against Jackley last month. He told The Associated Press on Tuesday evening that he had just glanced at the ruling, but based on what he had read he plans to appeal to the South Dakota Supreme Court.

"In a suicide such as this, the public would seem to deserve more information than they have received," he said. Mercer took the matter to the circuit court after he was unsuccessful in getting records through an administrative law process.

Benda's October death was ruled a suicide. At the time, Jackley was preparing to file felony theft charges against Benda amid allegations of financial misconduct at the Governor's Office of Economic Development surrounding a program that administered an investment-for-green-card program.

Jackley had agreed to release more information about Benda's death but only under certain conditions, chiefly that Benda's family had to consent. After Benda's family declined to authorize the release, Mercer sought the intervention of the administrative law judge and later the circuit judge.

Jackley on Tuesday said the court recognized that under South Dakota law the confidentiality of death records isn't absolute.

"The court affirmed that we have the statutes in place, but there is some leeway in disclosure," Jackley said. "...When all parties can be satisfied, there can be an instance of disclosure. But we were unable to achieve that level of satisfying that party's (Benda's family) interest."

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