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Judge says school shooter's writings won't be made public as victims' families have copyright

Six people were shot and killed at The Covenant School in Nashville in March 2023.
I'Ashea L. Myles
Posted at 8:16 AM, Jul 09, 2024

A chancery court judge ordered last week that the documents and writings belonging to a Tennessee school shooter can't be released because the victims' families have copyright.

This stems from a mass shooting on March 27, 2023, when a perpetrator killed six people at The Covenant School in Nashville, which is a private Christian elementary school. The shooter died at the hands of police.

A lawsuit emerged after the Metro Nashville Police Department didn't immediately release the shooter's documents in April 2023. At that point, police hadn't released any writings and denied open records requests — including one from Scripps News Nashville. Metro Legal said it denied those records because it was part of an open investigation. It then decided not to release anything because of the litigation over the records.

"The court has ruled that the Metro government acted properly in not immediately releasing the shooter's journals and other investigative records," said Wally Dietz, Metro Legal director. "By adopting some of the legal arguments raised by the Covenant parents, the court also endorsed our decision to ask the court at the beginning of the case to give the Covenant parents and other impacted parties the opportunity to present their own arguments."

Judge in Covenant case says she had ruling prepared prior to last week's leaks

Chancellor I'Ashea L. Myles wrote in her 60-page order that the Tennessee courts have determined that public access to every record at any time doesn't uphold the justice system.

"Therefore, the right to unencumbered access to public 56 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," Myles wrote. "Further, where the United States Congress has spoken, as the supreme law of the land, even the laws enacted in Tennessee must yield to their supremacy."

In addition to the writings, none of The Covenant School security details will be released "to ensure the safety of both Tennessee schools and schools broadly."

This case could be appealed to a higher court. Right now, the case file for the Covenant shooting is in the "final stages."

What more did the judge write?

Eric Osborne, the lawyer representing the Covenant families, spoke during the hearings in April focusing on three legal issues. He focused on the copyright aspect of the case.

Osborne argued that the journals and media were copyrighted from the moment they were written and that the Covenant Children's Trust now owns them.

"We will never register this copyright. Our position is they never be released," Osborne said.

Judge Myles agreed with Osborne's argument in her new order.

"Compliance with both the Tennessee Public Records Act and federal copyright law cannot be accomplished, therefore state law must cede to federal law," Myles wrote. "Therefore, the materials created by Hale are exempted from disclosure based on the federal Copyright Act. The release of the remaining documents which are not original, derivative or compilation works created by the assailant is further constrained by the exceptions to disclosure set forth by the General Assembly."

Who is part of the case?

- Tennessee Firearms Association
- The Tennessean newspapers
- Star Digital Media - The Tennessee Star
- Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga
- National Police Association

More than 100 families affected by The Covenant School mass shooting said they don't want any of the documents released. They became part of the case along with the church and the school itself.

Covenant families reasoned they didn't want the documents to traumatize their families further. Those petitioning for the records said the public deserves to know what the shooter was thinking prior to March 27.

Statement from parties who wanted the files

"It will take a while to digest all the subtleties of this lengthy opinion." — Doug Pierce for Clara Brewer, National Police Association

Statement from Metro Legal

"This case provided important issues, some which are cases of first impression. Chancellor Myles issued a well-crafted ruling that will likely be cited by courts around the country. The ongoing criminal investigation by the Metro Nashville Police Department is in its final stages. When the MNPD concludes its investigation, records in the file, other than the shooter's writings and records related to school safety or other statutory exceptions, will be released."

Statements from the Covenant victim families

Dr. Erin Kinney, mother of Will Kinney
"This opinion is an important first step to making sure the killer can’t hurt our babies anymore. The importance is even more clear due to the leaking of stolen police documents, which has violated our parental right to protect our traumatized and grieving children from material that could destroy their lives. We are more resolved than ever to fight to keep our children and everyone’s children safe from this murderer."

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William Kinney died in the mass school shooting at The Covenant School on March 27, 2023.

The family of Cindy Peak
"The last year and a half without Cindy has been difficult. But today brings a measure of relief in our family. Denying the shooter some of the notoriety she sought by releasing her vile and unfiltered thoughts on the world is a result everyone should be thankful for. I only wish that others, whether seeking clicks or profit, had felt that way before revealing the depth of depravity that existed in the mind of a mass murderer on March 27."

Cindy Peak
Cindy Peak died at The Covenant School during a mass shooting on March 27, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.

The family of Mike Hill
"Our dad found such joy each day at school with those children. He loved serving them and he was always there to protect them. While we still feel the pain of his loss in our lives, this decision helps continue his legacy as our family, Covenant children, and other communities will be more protected because these ramblings will not be able to inspire future attacks from other individuals who are consumed by hate and perceived grievances."

Mike Hill
Mike Hill died at The Covenant School during a mass shooting on March 27, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. He was the school's custodian.

The family of Evelyn Dieckhaus
"No result will lessen the pain we carry each day. But this decision will ensure no additional burden is added to our family, and that has been a major objective for us. No one should have to live through the nightmare of losing a child to such senseless acts, and our hope is that by keeping the rest of this material from seeing the light of day, it will ensure no other family has to walk this path."

Evelyn Dieckhaus
Evelyn Dieckhaus died at The Covenant School during a mass shooting on March 27, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. She was a 9-year-old student.

The family of Hallie Scruggs
"Far too often in our time, cruelty prevails over kindness; evil prevails over justice. Today was not one of those days. Instead, our hope is that the pain and suffering we have endured over the last year won't continue forward to terrorize other families and other communities. Though we still grieve, we are thankful for this result."

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Hallie Scruggs died at The Covenant School during a mass shooting on March 27, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. She was a 9-year-old student.

The family of Katherine Koonce
"The Court’s finding vindicates our family’s desire that public focus should be on the nobility of the loved ones who died tragically, and on the gracious support extended to households who suffered loss and trauma."

Katherine Koonce
Katherine Koonce died at The Covenant School during a mass shooting on March 27, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. She was the head of school.

Tennessee Coalition for Open Government
Open records advocates have been following the case closely. Deborah Fisher with the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government said the ruling is disappointing.

“Copyright can cover all kinds of works that will be emails, audio recordings, video recordings, and so if this information can become confidential in fact, this information cannot be released by police if the criminal claims copyright over it, I think that’s going to be a problem with transparency in police and transparency in the justice system,” Fisher said. "I think this sets a dangerous precedent because it allows someone, maybe someone who is charged, maybe the survivor of someone who murdered someone, to claim that records that show their intent would be confidential, and that’s what this is — this is evidence collected in a police investigation that shows the intent of the supposed killer."

This story was originally published by Emily R. West at Scripps News Nashville.