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News / Nation & World

Tennessee judge set to decide whether a Nashville school shooter’s journals are public records

By TRAVIS LOLLER, Associated Press
Published: April 16, 2024, 8:12am

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Whether the journals of a Nashville school shooter can be released to the public will go before a Tennessee judge on Tuesday after nearly a year of legal wrangling over who can participate in the case.

What started as a simple public records request has ballooned into a messy mix of conspiracy theories, leaked documents, probate battles and new legislation as different sides try to gain an advantage. And even though the main issue of which police investigative records can be released has finally made it to a court hearing, any decision by Chancery Court Judge I’Ashea Myles is likely to be appealed.

The dispute started last spring when groups that included The Associated Press filed public records requests for documents seized by Metro Nashville Police during their investigation into a March 27 shooting at a private Christian elementary school by a former student. Audrey Hale killed three 9-year-olds and three adult staff members at The Covenant School before police shot and killed Hale.

Interest in the writings spiked after police at an early news conference referenced some the shooter may have had. They found a series of journals and other writings, a few pages of which were leaked to a conservative commentator who posted them to social media in November. Part of the interest in the records stems from the fact that Hale, who police say was “assigned female at birth,” may have identified as a transgender man.

U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley, of Missouri, is among those who have promoted a theory that the shooting was a hate crime against Christians. The delay in releasing the writings has fueled speculation — particularly in conservative circles — regarding what they might contain and conspiracy theories about why police won’t release them.

Police have said that they do intend to release the writings, but only after their investigation is officially closed, which could take a few more months.

Groups suing to gain access to the records immediately include news outlets, a gun rights group, a law enforcement nonprofit and Tennessee State Sen. Todd Gardenhire. They argue there is no meaningful criminal investigation underway since the shooter, who police say acted alone, is dead.

Three other groups were allowed to intervene in the case after a court battle. The Covenant School and Covenant Presbyterian Church want to make sure no documents are released that could compromise the security of the building they share. Police have said Hale surveilled the building and drew a detailed map before the attack.

Meanwhile, a group of Covenant parents don’t want any of the writings ever to be released, fearing they will traumatize the surviving children and inspire copycats. They argue the rights of victims should outweigh the right of public access to government records.

To further complicate the issue, the parents’ group just last week gained ownership rights to the writings from Hale’s parents. They have threatened in court filings to sue anyone who publishes them, in the case that they are eventually released.

Gardenhire has filed a bill that would prevent nongovernmental parties, like the parents, from intervening in public records disputes.

“Third party intervenors take away the government’s control of its own records,” the Chattanooga Republican told fellow lawmakers in the Senate State and Local Government Committee on March 12.

The parents have cried foul, accusing Gardenhire of violating ethics rules by not disclosing his involvement in the Covenant records case. Gardenhire said the legislation, if passed, will have no effect on the case being heard Tuesday.

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