September 5, 2013 12:07PM
By Michael Melia
HARTFORD — An attorney with Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission has recommended the release of 911 recordings from the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, siding with The Associated Press in a dispute over records withheld by investigators.
The full, nine-member commission is to hold a Sept. 25 hearing before issuing its final decision on whether the recordings should be handed over to the AP.
Mark Dupuis, a spokesman for the state’s Division of Criminal Justice, said its attorneys would argue against the release.
The gunman, Adam Lanza, killed 20 first-grade children and six women inside the school in Newtown with a semi-automatic rifle on Dec. 14. He also killed his mother inside their Newtown home before driving to the school and killed himself.
In December, the AP requested documents, including copies of 911 calls, as it does routinely in news gathering, in part to examine the response of law enforcement to one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history. If the recordings are released, the AP would review the content and determine what, if any, of it would meet the news cooperative’s standards for publication.
The town denied the AP’s request, citing legal exemptions that allow the government to withhold documents if they’re being used for an ongoing investigation and should remain secret. The AP appealed to the FOI commission.
In her recommendation, issued on Aug. 27, hearing officer Kathleen Ross wrote that Newtown police and the prosecutor leading the investigation, Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky III, did not back up the argument that releasing the records could jeopardize the investigation. She said they did not offer evidence that the records “will be used in a prospective law enforcement action arising out of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings.”
Newtown’s police chief, Michael Kehoe, testified at a June 3 hearing that the police department withheld the 911 calls in part because of a request from Sedensky, who told the town that the recordings should not be released because of the investigation.
Ross wrote in her report that the state’s attorney does not have a right to dictate another public agency’s actions on disclosure.
“The Newtown respondents failed to make an independent assessment of their obligations under the FOI Act with respect to disclosure of public records,” she wrote.
Ross also dismissed an argument by Sedensky that all the children who were inside Sandy Hook that day deserve special legal protection because they were victims of child abuse. Lanza, she wrote, could not be considered a perpetrator of child abuse because he was not responsible for the children’s care.
“The suggestion that Adam Lanza was other than a random stranger who allegedly committed an unspeakable act of violence against children, is not based on any facts presented to this commission,” she wrote.
Connecticut passed a law in June to prevent the public release of crime scene photos and video evidence from the massacre. It created an exemption under the Connecticut Freedom of Information Act to prevent release of records if they “constitute an unwarranted invasion” of the personal privacy of surviving family members.
But Ross, who has reviewed the 911 tapes, said the new law would not exempt recordings of calls from inside the school to law enforcement agencies.
If the full FOI commission agrees the recordings should be released, Newtown officials and Sedensky would have 45 days to decide whether to appeal to Superior Court.
Investigators have not offered a possible motive for the massacre at Sandy Hook. Prosecutors have said Sedensky expects to issue a report on the investigation in the fall.