In March, Audrey Hale shocked the nation by opening fire at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee. The police soon acknowledged that they had a manifesto from Hale on why she took this inexplicable and horrific action. We all then waited for the release of the manifesto. We are still waiting.
It is not uncommon for there to be a delay in the release of information in a major crime pending investigation. What was weird is that the police quickly confirmed that Hale acted alone and Hale was dead. There is no prosecution that will occur in the case. Yet, it is May and the authorities are still refusing to release the manifesto . . . and they will not fully explain why. Now, the National Police Association and other groups are suing to make the writings and other materials of mass shooter Audrey Hale public.
There were twenty journals, five laptops, a suicide note, yearbooks, cellphones and various notes written by Hale, 28, that were seized from the house she shared with her parents. There have been press reports that the authorities consider the manifesto to be “astronomically dangerous.”
They may be unsettling and even dangerous, but the question is the right of the authorities to keep such evidence from the public and the press. The government can always declare information to be too “dangerous” to release for a variety of reasons. However, we have a system that defaults to disclosures and public access.
The Tennessee Public Records Act governs records created by any governmental entity of Tennessee, including the police department. The law covers all records “regardless of physical form or characteristic, made or received pursuant to law or ordinance or in connection with the transaction of official business by any governmental entity.” Note the verb “received.” That would include this evidence. Furthermore, “made” would include emails addressing why authorities decided to withhold the documents.
If these are public records they must “be open for personal inspection by any citizen of this state,” and custodians cannot refuse access “unless otherwise provided by state law.”
There is an exception under Rule 16(a)(2) of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure for ongoing investigations or prosecutions, but this case is clearly not active in the sense of any additional charges. Hale is dead. The law does not contemplate that the government can simply declare that a case is forever pending as a way to avoid disclosures.
I do not know what is in the manifesto or why it is so unnerving for authorities. However, what is clearly “dangerous” is for officials to flout the law and withhold information from the press and the public.