Tennessee judge refuses to release Covenant school shooter’s writings

The writings of a Nashville school shooter will not be made public, a Tennessee judge ruled Thursday night, saying it would be more damaging to make the writings public now.

“When a criminal investigation is underway or contemplated, the Tennessee courts have determined that unrestricted access to all records at all times does not serve the justice system upon which we all rely to ensure that the criminal justice system and investigations remain fair and impartial to all involved,” Davidson County District Court Judge I’Ashea Myles wrote in her ruling.

“Therefore, the right to unfettered access to public data has been limited by certain exceptions. These exceptions are intended to prevent certain information from being made public because the risk of harm from disclosure outweighs the public’s right to know,” she said.

Myles concluded that no documents from government officials in Nashville should be released at this time. This suggests that the documents could be released at a later date. At least one media outlet that wants to release the documents plans to appeal the ruling.

Her order comes after months of litigation between law enforcement officials, the media and victims’ families fighting over the release of documents from the March 27, 2023, mass shooting at The Covenant School, a Christian elementary school. Heavily armed former student Audrey Hale killed three children and three staff members before police fatally shot the gunman on the second floor of the school.

But in the weeks following the shooting, the motive remained unclear, with earlier suggestions that the 28-year-old gunman may have harbored a grudge against the school.

Authorities said the gunman’s writings appeared to be gibberish that suggested mental health issues. Nashville police offered to release the writings once the investigation was complete.

But the potential release of the writings quickly became a point of contention and brought several parties to court. Among them were media outlets that demanded that the writings be released in the public interest. Others, including relatives of the victims, argued that it would only inspire imitators.

The claim over ownership of the shooter’s writings has also been at the center of the dispute, as the shooter’s parents last year transferred legal ownership of the documents to the families of about 100 Covenant students. The school and the families had argued that the writings were private because they fell under a state law that protects documents related to school safety.

Myles also sided with the families in her ruling, explaining that “the original writings, journals, art, photographs and videos created by Hale are subject to an exception” to the Tennessee Public Records Act created by the federal Copyright Act.

In statements, the victims’ families said they were relieved by the judge’s decision.

“This opinion is an important first step in ensuring that the killer can no longer hurt our babies,” said Erin Kinney, the mother of William Kinney, one of the three children killed, along with Evelyn Dieckhaus and Hallie Scruggs, all 9.

The family of substitute teacher Cindy Peak, 61, one of the three adults killed, said the verdict “brings some relief to our family.”

“By depriving the shooter of some of the notoriety” that Hale sought by not releasing the shooter’s “disgusting and unfiltered thoughts to the world, everyone should be grateful,” the researchers said.

Lawyers representing the media companies were not immediately available for comment on Friday.

A spokesman for the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department said there was no comment on the judge’s decision.

The issue only became more complicated in November, when portions of the shooter’s writings were made public by conservative podcast and YouTube show host Steven Crowder. Then, last month, conservative news site The Tennessee Star, one of the groups filing the lawsuit seeking the release of the shooter’s writings, published articles detailing the contents of the writings and an alleged suicide note from the shooter. NBC News has not verified the writings.

The November break-in prompted Nashville Mayor Freddie O’Connell to launch an investigation into the unauthorized release and place seven city police officers on “administrative assignment.”

Although the Metro Nashville Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability found that the notes were taken from cellphone photos of the shooter’s journals, and that the journals were found by detectives in the shooter’s car, the investigation was closed without taking permanent action when a former detective failed to cooperate.

A spokesperson for the parents called the person who released the images of the texts a “viper” and said the person “released evidence collected in our most vulnerable moment.”

Michael Patrick Leahy, editor in chief of The Tennessee Star and CEO of Star News Digital Media, said Friday he will appeal Myles’ decision to keep the shooter’s writings private.

“The judge’s ruling is clearly not in the public interest and undermines the intent of the Tennessee Public Records Act,” he said in a statement.

Meanwhile, some teachers and parents of Covenant students have spoken out on another issue: legislation that would allow employees of public or private institutions in Tennessee to carry weapons in school, with permission.

Governor Bill Lee, a Republican, signed the bill in April, telling reporters: “What’s important is that we give districts tools and the option to use a tool that will keep their kids safe.”

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