Judge rules parents of students killed and traumatized in Nashville mass shooting to have say in release of evidence
"We are in unchartered territory," judge says.
A Tennessee judge has granted the parents of students killed and traumatized in a Nashville school mass shooting in March permission to intervene in a consolidated lawsuit seeking the public release of evidence seized in the on-going police investigation.
In a decision filed Wednesday night, Davidson County Chancery Court Judge I'Ashea L. Myles ruled the parents have a legal standing in the case to "permissively intervene to preserve any rights they may have on behalf of the minor children who were victims of this incident but not at the age of majority to assert their own claims."
In a separate ruling released earlier Wednesday, Myles granted the Covenant Presbyterian Church and its school permission to intervene in the case because both have "a sufficient personal stake in the outcome of this litigation."
Attorney Eric Osborne -- who said he represents 100 families affected by the school shooting, including the parents of three 9-year-old children killed -- told Myles during a hearing Monday that many of the parents want to address the court on why they don't want any of the evidence ever released. Osborne said the parents fear releasing the shooter's writings, including journals seized as evidence, will prompt copycat attacks and add additional pain to the children who survived the attack.
Osborne argued it would violate the parent's rights under the Tennessee Constitution if they were barred from intervening in the litigation.
"Once this document is released …. you can't un-ring the bell," Osborne said in court.
During Monday's hearing, Myles noted that such a horrific school attack is "not something we in Tennessee, and specifically Nashville, have had to deal with."
"So, in a way, we are in unchartered territory," Myles said. "That moment is not lost on me."
In her ruling Wednesday night, Myles wrote of the unprecedented complexities posed by the parents' motion.
"They wish to present their legal arguments and positions regarding an open area of the law that has not been clearly developed regarding the juxtaposition of the constitutional rights of the crime victim and the access to public records, particularly of a purported open criminal investigation," Myles wrote.
The killing rampage unfolded on March 27, when the alleged perpetrator Audrey Hale, 28, who once attended Covenant School, shot her way into the school with an AR-15-style rifle and killed the three children and three adults, including the head of the school, Katherine Koonce. Hale was fatally shot by police officers.
Police have not commented on a motive for the attack.
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 the sensitive private documents could have "harmful and irreversible consequences."
The Nashville Metropolitan Government requested Monday's hearing after being sued for the release of the documents by news organizations, the Tennessee Firearms Association Inc. and Clata Renee Brewer, a private investigator for the National Police Association.
Robb Harvey, an attorney who represents The Tennessean newspaper, said in court that the parents should not be permitted to intervene, arguing they have no standing in the case because no criminal charges have been filed due to the suspect being shot to death by police.
"As horrible a thing that happened to the parents and the families of the people who were killed, they're not victims of a crime," Harvey told Myles. "So, the constitutional provision doesn't apply to them."
Harvey added, "I know that their emotions have been just jangled and rattled and disrupted, their family lives have been disrupted, but that doesn't make them a criminal victim."
Brewer's attorney, Doug Pierce, suggested in court that the families of those killed and traumatized in the shooting and Covenant School officials don't want the writings and other evidence released because they are attempting to hide what's in the documents from the public.
"You do get the distinct impression from what has been filed, I can't say, but it's very strong, they all know what is in that document," Pierce alleged.
Osborne assured Myles that none of the families are privy to what is in the police investigative file.
Laura Fox, an attorney for the Nashville Metropolitan Government, said in court that some of the material seized in the investigation through search warrants and subpoenas, including Hale's writings, have been turned over to Myles to review in private. Fox invited Myles to come to police headquarters to review the remainder of the evidence.
Fox said the police investigation is still active and more evidence is being collected.
Myles has scheduled a "show cause" hearing for June 8 before she rules on whether to release the documents in the case.