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What we know about the complex court fight over the Nashville school shooter’s writings

<i>Johnnie Izquierdo/The Washington Post/Getty Images</i><br/>People gather at a makeshift memorial at The Covenant School a day after the mass shooting.
Johnnie Izquierdo/The Washington Post/Getty Images
People gather at a makeshift memorial at The Covenant School a day after the mass shooting.

By Dakin Andone, CNN

(CNN) — A judge soon could decide if the writings of a shooter who killed three 9-year-olds and three adults in March at a Christian school in Nashville become public as parties with competing interests in the case – and the broader battle over US firearms access – have sparred in court over their release.

The overlapping legal claims over Audrey Hale’s writings come as Tennessee’s Republican governor has announced a special legislative session in August to address gun control, raising the stakes for how the various parties interpret the documents as the nation’s gun violence epidemic roils on.

The National Police Association and the Tennessee Firearms Association separately sued after the Metro Nashville Police Department denied open records requests for writings left by Hale, a 28-year-old former student at The Covenant School whom officers killed amid the attack.

According to the plaintiffs, in denying the requests police cited a state Supreme Court ruling that found state law provides an exception to the public records act by allowing police to withhold the release of information in a pending criminal case except to a defendant.

Authorities already publicly have said Hale’s writings show the March 27 massacre was “calculated and planned” and Hale scouted a possible second attack location, had “considered the actions of other mass murderers” and “acted totally alone.”

The non-profit groups argue lessons gleaned from the writings themselves could benefit public safety by shedding light on the killer’s thinking, they’ve said in statements. Both, however, also have sought communications between Nashville police and local and federal officials, their lawsuits show, with the National Police Association speculating in a statement that local officers may have been “subjected to political pressure to keep all or part of the writings secret.”

Beyond that, Covenant Presbyterian Church, which runs the school, wants to intervene in both cases to safeguard its interests related to Hale’s writings, which could include journals and a suicide note, it said in court filings.

Supporting the church’s effort are many parents of Covenant School students – including those of the slain children – who want none of Hale’s writings released in part due to their fear of “copycat attacks,” court documents show. Their concern mirrors a “growing movement” to keep such records under wraps, CNN Chief Law Enforcement and Intelligence Analyst John Miller said.

“These messages are studied by other shooters who borrow from them, craft their own and expect the same fame after death,” he said. “So, the idea of denying this ‘free’ access to mass media exposure is thought to maybe not inspire the next person who feels overlooked and decides this is the way to get noticed.”

Now, a state judge is weighing whether to release the writings in response to the petition by the National Police Association, a Second Amendment advocacy organization that identifies its mission, in part, as bringing “attention to the anti-police efforts challenging effective law enforcement.”

An unredacted version of the journal and suicide note found in Hale’s car – along with a version of the documents with proposed redactions – were delivered by the city’s legal department to Judge I’Ashea Myles, Metropolitan Government of Nashville & Davidson County Law Director Wallace Dietz confirmed to CNN.

The documents will be discussed at a Monday status conference, Dietz told CNN on Thursday, adding the city-county government could not release them now “without violating a court order.” Further, the church and school petitioners “should have the right to speak to the Court before documents are released,” he said.

City officials did not respond to CNN’s request for comment about the police association’s claim of political pressure. Metro Nashville Police would delay the release of any documents “pending orders or direction of the court” at the advice of its lawyers, it said earlier this month.

The fight for the documents also has spread beyond the limits of Nashville and Davidson County: The editor and a reporter from the Tennessee Star, a local outlet that’s part of the conservative Star News Digital Media network, has similarly sued the FBI in federal court for rejecting its own records request for Hale’s writings.

‘Actual basis’ for killings at issue, gun rights group says

“Many believe that public access to these records is important for a number of reasons including the interest in determining the actual basis for the homicides,” the Tennessee Firearms Association said May 1 in an online statement, “particularly in light of Governor Bill Lee’s call for a special legislative session to consider his gun control proposal that he has presented in the format of a ‘Red Flag’ law.”

The group, which aims to promote and protect Second Amendment rights, filed two open records requests on April 13 for copies of “the ‘manifesto’ reportedly found” in Hale’s home the day of the shooting and the “manifesto” reportedly left in Hale’s vehicle, plus all Metro Nashville Police Department emails and text messages about the attack, according to a lawsuit it filed after the requests were denied. Former Sheriff James Hammond of Hamilton County, Tennessee, joined that petition after his similar requests also were denied.

In rejecting the requests, Nashville cited a 2016 state Supreme Court case that found the state’s Rule of Criminal Procedure provides an exception to Public Records Act requests while a criminal case is pending, the firearms association’s petition says.

The city, however, “failed to identify any underlying criminal proceeding, or even a potential defendant” that would warrant delaying the documents’ release, the firearms association argues in the court document. The shooter was killed by police the day of the attack, the group pointed out in the statement.

The National Police Association, which sued alongside Tennessee resident Clata Renee Brewer, made a similar argument, claiming its requests for similar records related to Hale’s writings and communications about the school attack between local and federal officials, including the White House and the FBI, were also denied.

But “there is no pending or contemplated criminal prosecution” that would make the cited exception applicable, the police association’s lawsuit states.

“The NPA believes releasing the complete materials will benefit law enforcement and the public,” the group said in an online statement highlighting two remarks in April by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations director suggesting Hale was the sole perpetrator.

“The writings of killers often offer critical insights into the factors that contribute to the development of criminal behavior,” it said. “The communications between MNPD and influencers who may have caused the MNPD to not honor the (public records) statute will provide guidance going forward on how other departments can plan for and prevent similar political interference.”

The police association did not further detail the potential “influencers” or “political interference” it alleges.

School parents and church want their say

Covenant Presbyterian Church responded to the National Police Association and the Tennessee Firearms Association cases with its own motion to intervene.

The documents the groups are seeking “may include and/or relate to information owned by Covenant Church, including, but not limited to, schematics of church facilities and confidential information pertaining to Covenant Church employees,” its court filing said.

Should the documents be released, it added, they “may impair or impede” the church’s “ability to protect its interests and the privacy of its employees.”

Many Covenant School parents this week filed a brief in support of the church’s motion, the document said, noting it was supported by more than three-quarters of the school’s families.

“Rather, the Parents see no good that can come from the release and wish to contend that the writings – which they believe are the dangerous and harmful writings of a mentally-damaged person – should not be released at all,” the brief said.

The parents also argued the writings are not public records and an “implicit exemption” exists to preclude their release, citing the danger and their fear of “copycat attacks.”

The-CNN-Wire
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CNN’s Alta Spells, Pamela Kirkland and Isabel Rosales contributed to this report.

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