The Disingenuous Arguments Behind the One-Year Delay in Releasing the Sandy Hook 911 Calls

Today, nearly a year after Adam Lanza murdered 20
children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown,
Connecticut, the city finally released
of 911 calls made from the scene of that horrifying
crime. The long delay was due to opposition by State’s Attorney
Stephen Sedensky, who while overseeing the investigation of the
massacre became so concerned about the feelings of the victims’
families that he lost sight of his legal obligations.
Connecticut’s Freedom
of Information Act
 creates a presumption in favor of
making public records public, and Sedensky fell far short of
showing that the 911 recordings qualified for any of the
recognized exceptions. 

How far short? In his
November 26 order
 upholding the Connecticut Freedom of
Information Commission’s rejection of Sedensky’s bid to keep the
recordings under wraps, Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott said
one of the prosecutor’s arguments “borders on the frivolous.” He
was referring to Sedensky’s claim that 911 calls, which are
routinely released by police in cases that attract public
attention, should be treated like “signed statements from
witnesses” taken as part of a criminal investigation.

Prescott was similarly unimpressed by Sedensky’s claim that the
recordings would reveal the identities of previously unnamed
witnesses, subjecting them to “threat or intimidation.” Prescott
concluded that “the plaintiff has not come close to meeting his
burden to demonstrate that such circumstances exist in this case.”
Having listened to the calls, the judge noted that “only one
individual is mentioned by name, and there is nothing to suggest
his or her identity as a witness is currently unknown to the
public.” Furthermore, the only evidence Sedensky cited that such
exposure might result in threat or intimidation was a reference to
a man who lived across the street from the school and sheltered
children who escaped during Lanza’s attack. Sedensky said this Good
Samaritan was “bothered by what is going on in the media, in terms
of people writing things about him.”

Sedensky also argued that releasing the 911 recordings would
jeopardize “prospective law enforcement action.” What action might
that be, you may wonder, since the perpetrator killed himself
before police entered the school? Prescott wondered the same thing.
Sedensky argued that even if he did not plan to prosecute anyone
the case was not closed until he said it was, and releasing the
recordings before them would be unacceptably risky. “This court
disagrees with the plaintiff’s expansive definition of ‘law
enforcement action,'” Prescott wrote. “The plaintiff has cited no
legal authority for his broad characterization of the phrase.” Even
if a prosecution were possible, the judge observed, Sedensky had
not explained why letting the public hear the 911 calls would
compromise it.

Even more of a stretch was Sedensky’s argument that the 911
recordings constituted records of “child abuse” that by law had to
be kept confidential. As Prescott patiently shows, the statute on
which Sedensky relied very clearly refers to records kept by the
Department of Children and Families concerning child abuse by “(1)
a person responsible for such child’s health, welfare, or care, (2)
a person given access to the child by such responsible person, or
(3) a person entrusted with the care of a child.” The
confidentiality requirement does not apply to the murder of
children by total strangers, a kind of violence that is handled by
“the appropriate local law enforcement agency.”

On the whole, Prescott concluded, Sedensky’s arguments “lack
merit.” That is not surprising, since they were nothing more than
covers for his actual motive, which was to shield the parents of
Lanza’s victims from further pain. That impulse is understandable,
but it does not carve out an exception to the Freedom of
Information Act. If it did, police and prosecutors could suppress
information about crimes at will by arguing that releasing it would
cause victims or their survivors further suffering. Any decent
person feels for the families devastated by the Sandy Hook
massacre. But there is nothing admirable about Sedensky’s
willingness to sacrifice the rule of law, government transparency,
and freedom of the press on the altar of sympathy.

from Hit & Run

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