Why the Covenant School Shooter’s Writings Have Not Yet Been Released - The World News

Why the Covenant School Shooter’s Writings Have Not Yet Been Released

A Nashville judge said on Monday that she would soon rule on whether writings left by the assailant who killed six people at a private Christian school last year could be released.

The judge, Chancellor I’Ashea L. Myles of the Chancery Court in Davidson County, has been asked to weigh demands to release the writings as vital public records against the wishes of families at the school, who say they want to protect their children from further trauma.

Here’s what to know about the case.

The assailant who killed three third-grade students and three staff members at the Covenant School in March 2023 left behind more than a dozen folders and journals in a car and at home, according to a search warrant.

Together, they amount to hundreds of handwritten pages, officials said, some of which reflect a hateful plan to target the school. But beyond saying publicly that the shooter “considered the actions of other mass murderers” and was under treatment for an emotional disorder, the police have yet to outline a motive for what was Tennessee’s deadliest school shooting.

The records are currently with the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department, which denied all requests to release them while investigating the attack. In response, journalists, gun-rights groups, and a Republican state senator sued for their release last year.

Excerpts and details from the writings have twice been leaked and published, including this month by The Tennessee Star, a conservative news outlet that is also suing for the full release of the records. City and police officials have said that the leaked material is only a fraction of the writings left behind.

The case has significant implications for journalists and public records in Tennessee. It comes at a moment when multiple states in the region have moved to limit access to the paper trail around governors and top agencies, or unmask the sources behind damaging leaks.

“This fight over the Covenant records has become so pitched that it could have an effect on routine access to police records and the transparency of law enforcement,” said Deborah Fisher, the executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government.

Chancellor Myles must now consider the protections of open records law, the public’s right to know and the First Amendment, against concerns from the Covenant community and outside experts about inspiring other mass shootings.

But in instances where a shooter’s writings are not immediately disseminated online, courts have moved to release some records: Nearly 1,000 pages of documents related to the Columbine shooting in Colorado were released in 2006 because of a court order, and a five-year court battle in Connecticut allowed The Hartford Courant to view documents from the gunman responsible for the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.

One possibility in the Covenant case is that the judge will allow the documents to be released but with some redactions to hide sensitive details.

She also may consider an argument that the families of the surviving students now have copyright protection over the writings, after the shooter’s parents transferred legal ownership of the writings to them.

“This is not your typical open records case,” Chancellor Myles told the lawyers on Monday.

Her decision is almost certain to be appealed.

The case hit a snag early on when nearly all of the families of surviving students, the Covenant School and the adjoining church argued that they had a right to have a say in the proceedings, because they had been harmed in the attack.

Lawyers for the journalists and outside groups resisted, and it was not until late November that the Tennessee Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the parents, school and church. That paved the way for a two-day trial in April.

Chancellor Myles said on Monday that she had been prepared to release her decision, at least 60 pages in length, last week. But she said she held off after a reporter asked the court about The Tennessee Star articles that had drawn from leaked excerpts.

There have been two instances of excerpts from the writings being publicized, as backlash over the delay in releasing the documents has grown.

Right-wing activists have accused Nashville officials of intentionally trying to cover up the details behind the shooting, after seizing on the assailant’s gender identity as a possible factor. (The police said the shooter was transgender, but have not said whether gender identity was a factor in the attack.)

In November, a conservative political commentator published three photographs that appeared to be pages written by the shooter. That infuriated the families of the Covenant School students and led to an internal police investigation into the leak, which was ultimately inconclusive.

The Tennessee Star then obtained images of documents left in the shooter’s car on the day of the attack, and published a series of stories quoting portions of the documents. Nashville police and officials have signaled that they plan to investigate who shared the documents with The Star.

The news outlet’s chief executive and editor in chief, Michael Patrick Leahy, was summoned to appear in court on Monday, which he objected to as an infringement on his First Amendment rights.

“The media does not lose the right to report because they seek access to public records,” said Mr. Leahy’s lawyer, Daniel Horwitz.

Lora Fox, a lawyer for the Nashville government, estimated that as of the Monday morning hearing, content from at least two pages of the journals had been released. “The amount of materials is certainly not the whole case at this point, and there are quotes taken that are not complete,” she said.

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