Newtown Victims' Families, Prosecutors Argue Against Audio Release

, The Connecticut Law Tribune

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A husband and a mother of two victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre told a Connecticut task force last week they don't want the 911 tapes released, saying no one needs to hear the sounds from that day.

Bill Sherlach, whose wife, Mary, was killed on Dec. 14, 2012, said the panel should recommend a compromise to state lawmakers, such as providing members of the media and others a written transcription of the emergency calls.

"There must be some sort of balance between making sure that the public's right to know is sustained while the victims-of-certain-atrocities' right to privacy is also honored," Sherlach told the task force members. He added that "911 transcripts can relay all the necessary information that the public wants without having to hear the sounds of a slaughter in the background."

Hours later, the prosecutor leading the investigation of the shooting filed an application, asking a Connecticut court to stay an order by the state's Freedom of Information Commission last month to release the 911 tapes. The panel had ruled in favor of The Associated Press, which sought access to the recordings.

Danbury State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky II argued that the stay would ensure his appeal of the FOI's decision is not rendered moot. He also noted that records of child abuse are not unlawfully disclosed and statements of victims and witnesses are not released.

The AP routinely requests such documents in news gathering. It was done in part to examine the police response to the massacre that sent officers from multiple agencies racing to the school. The shooting left 20 first graders and six educators dead. 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.

"AP's motivation here is simple. This was one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history, and we're pressing for access to recordings that could shed light on the law enforcement response," said William J. Kole, New England bureau chief for the news cooperative.

In June, Connecticut lawmakers passed legislation that prevented the public release of crime scene photos and video evidence depicting a homicide victim if those records constitute an "unwarranted invasion of personal privacy" of the victim or the victim's surviving family members. The new law also created a one-year moratorium on the release of certain portions of audiotape and other recordings in which the condition of a homicide victim is described. The exemption did not, however, include 911 emergency call recordings, which are typically released in Connecticut.

The same legislation created The Task Force on Victim Privacy and the Public's Right to Know and charged it with coming up with recommendations for the General Assembly to consider in next year's new legislative session. In October, an attorney representing 22 of the 26 families who lost relatives in the shooting asked that the audiotape of the Sandy Hook 911 calls not be publicly released.

Both Sherlach and Nicole Hockley, whose son, Dylan, was killed, said they are not asking for a categorical exclusion of all 911 audio tapes from the state's FOI Act. Rather, they said different elements of each case need to be considered before releasing the tapes. "We're not saying all or nothing," Hockley said.

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