HARTFORD, Conn. - A dispute over the 911 recordings from the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School is shaping up as a test of a new Connecticut law — adopted in response to the massacre — that prevents public release of certain records in homicide cases.
The Associated Press is challenging the refusal by investigators to release the tapes from the Dec. 14 shooting. A hearing officer for Connecticut's Freedom of Information Commission has recommended the tapes be released, and the full commission is meeting Wednesday to consider the case.
Twenty-six people, including 20 first-graders, were killed inside the school by the gunman, Adam Lanza, who committed suicide as police arrived.
The AP requested documents including copies of 911 calls, as it does routinely in newsgathering, 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 how much of them, if any, would meet the news co-operative's standards for publication.
A state law passed earlier this year creates exemptions to the freedom-of-information law for the release of photographs, film, video and other images depicting a homicide victim if those records constitute "an unwarranted invasion" on the privacy of the surviving family members. It also created a one-year moratorium on the release of certain portions of audiotape and other recordings — with the exception of 911 tapes — in which the condition of a homicide victim is described.
In her Aug. 27 recommendation siding with the AP, hearing officer Kathleen Ross wrote that the new law "specifically does not shield from disclosure recordings of 911 calls from members of the public to law enforcement agencies."
The prosecutor leading the Newtown investigation, Danbury State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky III, argued in reply that certain content of 911 calls could be shielded by the law. He gave the example of a possible call from a sexual assault victim.
"It is highly doubtful that the legislature would have wanted a sexual assault victim to have to choose between calling the police and having his or her 9-1-1 call on every radio station, therefore it could not have been the intent of the legislature to eliminate all exemptions simply because they were in the context of a 9-1-1 call," Sedensky wrote.
Sedensky has argued that releasing the 911 tapes could jeopardize the police investigation, subject witnesses to harassment from conspiracy theorists and violate survivors from the school who deserve special protection as victims of child abuse. His arguments were rejected by Ross, who said she was dismayed that the Newtown Police Department withheld the tapes at the direction of a state's attorney.
If the full Freedom of Information Commission agrees the recordings should be released, Newtown officials and Sedensky would have 45 days to decide whether to appeal to Superior Court.
A state task force created by the new freedom-of-information legislation is expected to come up with proposals to help strike a balance between victim privacy under the state's law and the public's right to know. The task force faces a Jan. 1 deadline.