A Tennessee judge’s unprecedented ruling granting parents the legal right to object to the release of police evidence in a Nashville school mass shooting case could produce a chilling effect on what law enforcement officials make public about violent crime in the future, experts told ABC News.
Davidson County Chancery Court Judge I’Ashea L. Myles ruled on Wednesday that the parents of students who were killed or traumatized by the March 27 massacre at the Covenant School have a legal standing to intervene on behalf of their children in lawsuits requesting evidence, including the shooter’s writings, be released to the public.
“There’s no roadmap on this,” Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition on Open Government, a nonprofit that advocates for transparency in government, told ABC News.
The Covenant School parents filed a motion to be heard in a now consolidated lawsuit against the Nashville Metropolitan Government by media companies, the Tennessee Firearms Association Inc. and a private investigator for the National Police Association to compel the police department’s release to the public evidence collected in an ongoing investigation of the school shooting that left three 9-year-old students and three adults, including the head of the school, dead.
An attorney for the parents said at a court hearing before Myles this week that the parents don’t want to see any of the police evidence ever made public, specifically the journals of the alleged shooter, 28-year-old Audrey Hale, who was killed by police.
Police have not commented on a motive for the attack.
Attorney Eric Osborne, who said he represents 100 families affected by the school shooting, argued during Monday’s hearing that the parents fear the evidence, if made public, could inspire copycat attacks and add additional pain to the children who survived the rampage.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to enter this case on behalf of our children and loved ones,” Brent Leatherwood, a Covenant School parent who attended the Monday hearing, said in a statement to The New York Times. “Our intention is to safeguard our families and do all we can to prevent this horror from spreading to any other community.”
In their motion, the parents cited the Tennessee Crime Victims’ Bill of Rights which says victims “have the right to be free from harassment, intimidation, and abuse throughout the criminal justice system.”
“Let me be clear, what would create a slippery slope is if she (Myles) decides that victims have a right to prevent access to police records,” Fisher said. “I think we’re about to hear, according to what the lawyers said, testimony from witnesses that say why the writings of mass shooters should not be released.”
Myles has scheduled a June 8 “show cause” hearing for attorneys on both sides of the issue to make arguments.
Osborne said many of the Covenant School parents want to address the court on why they don’t want the records released. He also said he’d like to call expert witnesses to explain how such a release of information could leave the victims open to “harassment, intimidation, and abuse.”
In addition to the parents, Myles granted the Covenant Presbyterian Church and its school the right to intervene in the litigation.
During a hearing on Monday, lawyers for the church and school argued they don’t want the evidence seized in the investigation released because the material contains the school’s safety plan and other documents pertaining to health and social security records of school and church employees.
In her ruling, Myles wrote that “the court was stirred” by the argument that the public release of sensitive private documents could have “harmful and irreversible consequences.”
“We’re interested because we’re used to police being able to release things about crimes,” Fisher said. “We don’t know what will happen if victims could, basically, prevent the release of police information, any police information. If that were the case, the police’s hands will be tied on releasing information without the consent of the victim.”
Fisher noted that two days after the mass shooting, Metropolitan Nashville Police Department released body camera footage of police officers charging into the school and killing the shooter. Police officials also released surveillance camera footage of Hale firing an AR-15-style rifle through the school’s glass doors and stalking the hallways looking for victims to shoot.
“Even though it’s graphic and scary to see that, police released it and it made them look like heroes and they were. They really went into that situation, and you could see what police had to do,” Fisher said. “That video of the shooter going through the school, I don’t know what the parents think about that being released.”
John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, a national gun rights advocacy group, told ABC News that it’s “incredibly unusual” that the Covenant School shooter’s writings haven’t already been released.
“To me, the important thing is to learn the motivation why the person picked the particular place they did to attack,” Lott said.
The Covenant parents’ motion to have a say in the release of the police evidence was filed two days after more than 60 members of the Tennessee House Republican Caucus signed a letter they sent to Chief John Drake of the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, asking him to release Hale’s writings. The lawmakers wrote that Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has called upon the General Assembly to hold a special session to consider public safety legislation in response to the shooting.
“In order for this special session to be successful, it is paramount we understand the behavior and motives of the Covenant School perpetrator,” the letter said.
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