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Nashville court grapples with details on school shooter that were leaked to media

A Tennessee judge ordered Star News Digital Media, a conservative media organization, and editor-in-chief Michael Leahy to appear in court over its publishing details from allegedly leaked documents about the 2023 Nashville school shooting, while the outlet sues for the same kind of records to be released to the public.
George Walker IV
/
AP
A Tennessee judge ordered Star News Digital Media, a conservative media organization, and editor-in-chief Michael Leahy to appear in court over its publishing details from allegedly leaked documents about the 2023 Nashville school shooting, while the outlet sues for the same kind of records to be released to the public.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Attorneys fighting over the release of documents involving a 2023 Nashville elementary school shooting pleaded with a judge Monday to finally issue a ruling settling the matter, their request taking on a more desperate tone amid the recent publication of leaked records about the shooter.

It was the latest hearing in a lengthy legal battle over whether the investigative file and other records from the Covenant School massacre — where six people, including three children, were killed — should be released under Tennessee's public records law. A group of Covenant School parents have joined the lawsuit, arguing none of the documents should ever be released because they could inspire copycats and retraumatize their children.

Yet even as officials have kept the documents hidden from public view, two prominent rounds of evidence about the shooter's writings have been leaked to media outlets.

Most recently, The Tennessee Star published dozens of stories based on allegedly 80 pages of the Covenant shooter's writings provided by an unnamed source. The publication is among the plaintiffs suing for access to the records.

In response, Nashville Chancellor I'Ashea Myles ordered Editor-in-Chief Michael Leahy and Star News Digital Media, which owns The Tennessee Star, to appear in court and explain why publishing details of the leaked documents did not violate court protection of records that could subject them to contempt proceedings and sanctions. The judge later denied a request by Leahy to cancel the hearing but said no witnesses would testify.

"I don't watch the news, I don't do my own investigation, it's best that I have the attorneys come in and really let me know what is going on," Myles told a packed courtroom Monday. "Depending on what I learn today from the parties, I will issue a separate ruling on what the next steps will be."

Myles added that she had been prepared to release a 60-plus page ruling last week, but held off because of concerns over the leaked documents.

None of the attorneys who spoke Monday raised concerns that the leaked documents dramatically impacted the ongoing court case. Nearly all agreed 80 pages constituted just a tiny portion of the documents.

"Our position is this potential contempt proceeding has nothing to do with the release of the records, therefore I urge the court to quickly rule on the underlining case," said attorney Doug Pierce, representing those wanting the documents released.

Leahy's attorney, Daniel Horwitz, and Myles had a tense but brief exchange as Horwitz attempted to clarify what specific information the judge was seeking. Myles refused to let Horwitz speak to concerns over possible contempt sanctions, saying that those proceedings were not taking place on Monday.

"I'm encouraged we have veered off a very dangerous road of threatening reporters for lawful reporting," Horwitz told reporters after the hearing.

Police are continuing to look in who leaked the Covenant documents, a lieutenant has drawn a connection to a former colleague without directly accusing him.

Nashville Police Lt. Alfredo Arevalo said in a recent court declaration that a former lieutenant, Garet Davidson, was given a copy of the criminal investigative file that was stored in a safe in his office and only Davidson had the key and safe combination, Arevalo said. Davidson has since left the force.

In his declaration, Arevalo noted Davidson has spoken about details from the Covenant investigative file on Leahy's radio show and another program.

Arevalo wrote that he is "appalled" by the leak and "saddened by the impact that this leak must have on the victims and families of the Covenant school shooting."

The Associated Press left messages for phone numbers believed to be associated with Davidson.

The shooter who killed three 9-year-old children and three adults at Covenant, a private Christian school, left behind at least 20 journals, a suicide note and an unpublished memoir, according to court filings.

The city of Nashville has argued it doesn't have to release the documents during an active police investigation. The plaintiffs have countered there is no meaningful criminal investigation underway since the shooter, Audrey Hale, was killed by police.

A few pages of one journal were leaked to a conservative commentator who posted them online in November. Police say the shooter may have been a transgender man, which has been a point of focus for conservative media personalities.

The judge in the public records case previously showed concern about possible leaks. In February filings, Myles ordered the parties not to directly quote or reproduce any leaked documents during case proceedings, threatening sanctions such as contempt of court for any "efforts to usurp" court orders by the parties, attorneys or involved third parties.

In the public records lawsuit, the plaintiffs include news outlets, a gun rights group, a law enforcement nonprofit and state Sen. Todd Gardenhire. Star News Digital Media also is suing the FBI in federal court for the documents' release.

Copyright 2024 NPR

The Associated Press
[Copyright 2024 Jefferson Public Radio]
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