NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — In Tennessee, a request for police to release a school shooter’s private writings has morphed into a complex multiparty fight that pits the parents of traumatized students against a coalition of local news outlets, nonprofits, and a Republican lawmaker — with both sides claiming their position is in the public interest.
The person who killed three 9-year-old children and three adults at a private Christian elementary school in Nashville on March 27 left behind at least 20 journals, a suicide note and a memoir, according to court filings. But there is no national standard governing if, or how, such writings are made public.
Shooters sometimes release their writings themselves over the internet, prompting a race to suppress their spread. In 2019, the white supremacist who killed 51 worshippers at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, posted his anti-immigrant screed online. Five months later, a man who killed 23 at a Texas Walmart published a racist diatribe on the same message board.
In other cases, killers have sent documents directly to news outlets, leaving them the decision of what to publish. NBC was criticized by victims’ families in 2007 for airing videos the Virginia Tech shooter mailed to the network in the midst of his killing spree.
Where a killer’s writings are seized as part of a search warrant — as is the case in The Covenant School shooting — the decision of what to release and when often rests with a local police chief or sheriff and is ultimately governed by state-specific public records laws.
After a supervisor at a Virginia Walmart fatally shot six co-workers last November, police took only a few days to release his rambling last note. Michigan State University campus police waited less than a month to release a grievance-filled note from the person who killed three students there in February.
Nashville police said they will release the Covenant shooter’s writings but not until they close the investigation, which could take a year. In the face of this delay, multiple groups have sued for access, including a state senator, The Tennessean newspaper and a gun-rights organization. On the other side, The Covenant School, the church that shares its building, and many of the school’s parents want to keep the records private.
Such a fight is unusual but not unprecedented. A similar legal battle in the 2000s led to the eventual release of most of the Columbine killers’ writings, audiotapes and videotapes. In that case, Columbine parents fought for access to the records, believing they would show a cover-up by the local sheriff.
In the Covenant shooting, it’s the parents who want the shooter’s writings kept secret.
Erin Kinney, mother of one of the slain children, filed a declaration with the court stating she has not seen the shooter’s writings but believes there are no answers to be found in them.
“I do not believe there was any motivation other than a desire for death, and there is nothing that could ever make the horrible act of killing children make sense,” Kinney writes. “The public release of these writings will not prevent the next attack. There is nothing in the journals to satisfy the yearning, overactive minds of the conspiracy theorists.”
The Covenant case is complicated by the fact that the shooter, who police say was “assigned female at birth,” seems to have identified as a transgender man. U.S. Sen Josh Hawley, of Missouri, is among those promoting a theory that the shooting was a hate crime against Christians. The refusal to release the writings has fueled speculation — particularly in conservative circles — regarding what the they might contain and conspiracy theories about why police won’t release them.
In the legal battle over the writings, both sides argue their position will prevent future shootings.
The coalition seeking the writings says their public release will help experts better understand mass shootings and develop policies to thwart them. A group of more than 60 Tennessee House Republicans said in an open letter that the Covenant writings will be critical for their debate of school safety legislation at an August special session called by the governor.
But the parents say releasing the writings is dangerous and will inspire copycats.
There is a growing movement to deny mass killers notoriety after their deaths, limiting the use of their names and images, so posthumous fame won’t be a motivating factor for future killings. Whether their writings should also be suppressed is a subject of some disagreement, even among mass shooting experts.
“Perpetrators are looking to make headlines,” said Jillian Peterson, a criminology professor at Hamline University and president of The Violence Project. “Perpetrators are looking to be famous for that. And so when we spread their videos, and their words, and their pictures, and their writings — we’ve seen that before, that it does inspire copycats.”
Adam Lankford, a professor of criminology at the University of Alabama who studies mass shootings, said he thinks there is a way to make a killer’s writings public without inspiring copycats. The biggest problem is killers are sometimes made into celebrities, with their names and photos splashed across news reports for weeks, he said.
“I don’t think a manifesto in isolation is likely to inspire an attack if you can’t see who that person is and start to identify with them,” he said. “But if you’re already obsessed with that individual, then, you know, that obsession can extend to obsessing about that person’s words.”
Beyond the debate over the public good, however, lies the issue of Tennessee open records law, which has no special exception for the writings of mass shooters.
Richard Hollow, who represents The Tennessean and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, said the parents should try to change the law if they don’t want the records released. That’s what happened after the Sandy Hook shooting, where parents successfully pushed Connecticut lawmakers to bar the release of certain homicide victim photos and delay the release of some audio recordings.
In the Covenant case, the families are making the novel claim that they have rights as victims under the Tennessee Constitution that trump open records law. Whether they can intervene in the case to argue their point is currently before the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said if the parents’ argument is successful, it would not just apply in this one case.
“It is problematic to give victims in Tennessee a constitutional right to veto the release of crime evidence,” she said. “They’re talking about this crime. They’re talking about this shooter. But essentially, that is the right the broad right that they want the court to conclude victims have in Tennessee.”