Tennessee judge denies release of Covenant school shooter’s writings to the public

The writings of a Nashville school shooter won’t be made public, a Tennessee judge ruled late Thursday, finding that there is more harm to be done in releasing them now.

“When there is a pending or contemplated criminal investigation, Tennessee courts have determined that unfettered access to every record at any time does not serve to uphold the system of justice that we all depend upon to ensure that the criminal legal system and investigations remain fair and impartial for every involved person,” Davidson County Chancery Court Judge I’Ashea Myles wrote in her decision.

“Therefore, the right to unencumbered access to public records was tempered by certain exceptions which serve to keep certain information from disclosure as the risk of harm from disclosure is outweighed by the public’s right to know,” she said.

Myles concluded that no records held by Nashville government officials shall “be disclosed at this time,” suggesting that the writings could still become public at a later date; at least one media company seeking for their release plans to appeal the ruling.

Her order comes after months of litigation among police officials, the media and family members of victims battling over the release of records from the March 27, 2023, mass shooting at The Covenant School, a Christian grade school. Heavily armed former student Audrey Hale killed three children and three staff members before police fatally shot the shooter on the school’s second floor.

But in the weeks after the shooting, a motive remained unclear, beyond an early suggestion that the 28-year-old shooter may have felt resentment toward the school.

Authorities have said the shooter’s writings appeared to be ramblings indicative of a mental health struggle, and Nashville police offered to make the writings public once their investigation concluded.

But the potential release of the writings quickly became a flash point and has pitted various parties in court, including media companies that have demanded it should be released in the public interest, while others, including family members of the victims, suggested it would only inspire copycats.

The claim over ownership of the shooter’s writings was also 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 records related to school security.

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

In statements, families of the victims expressed relief in the judge’s decision.

“This opinion is an important first step to making sure the killer can’t hurt our babies anymore,” said Erin Kinney, the mother of William Kinney — one of 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 ruling “brings a measure of relief in our family.”

“Denying the shooter some of the notoriety” Hale sought by not releasing the shooter’s “vile and unfiltered thoughts on the world is a result everyone should be thankful for,” they said.

Lawyers representing the media companies could not immediately be reached for comment Friday.

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department said it did not have a comment regarding the judge’s decision.

The issue only became further 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, the conservative news site The Tennessee Star, which is among the groups suing for the shooter’s writings to be released, published articles about the contents of writings and a purported suicide note by the shooter. NBC News has not verified those writings.

The November breach led Nashville Mayor Freddie O’Connell to call for an investigation into the unauthorized release and seven city police employees to be placed on “administrative assignment.”

While the Metro Nashville Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability found that the writings came from cellphone photos taken of the shooter’s journals and those journals were found by detectives inside the shooter’s car, the investigation concluded without any permanent action when a former detective did not cooperate.

A spokesperson for the parents called the person who publicly released the images of the writings “a viper” and said the person “released evidence that was gathered in our most vulnerable moment.”

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

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

Meanwhile, some teachers and parents of Covenant students have been outspoken on another issue: legislation to allow staff at public or private institutions in Tennessee to carry weapons in school with approval.

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

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