For almost a year, Connecticut State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky and the Newtown Police Department refused to release recordings of seven 911 calls made on the morning of Dec. 14, 2012 – each from within Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
On Monday, however, Mr. Sedensky finally relented, announcing he would no longer seek to block their public airing. He had appealed a September ruling by the state’s Freedom of Information Commission, which unanimously held there were no legal justifications to keep these from the public. Last week, a state court upheld the commission’s ruling and ordered the release of these recordings – set for Wednesday at 2 pm.
Though 911 recordings are by law a matter of public record, in certain cases they may be withheld from the public. And for months, Sedensky tried to expand legal definitions to their breaking points, arguing the Sandy Hook 911 calls were exempt from freedom of information laws.
For one, he claimed the recordings contained “information relative to child abuse,” which would make them confidential under the law. He also argued that their release would reveal the names of witnesses, thus endangering their safety and making them subject to threats and intimidation – as well as creating a “chilling effect” on future 911 callers, who would be wary of their names becoming public.
Sedensky also argued that these calls were in effect “signed statements” of witnesses, and that their release would hinder his investigation, which would also make the calls exempt from freedom of information laws.
But both the state commission and the judge, Eliot Prescott of the New Britain Superior Court, dismissed Sedensky’s legal claims as unfounded. Judge Prescott, in a 33-page ruling on Nov. 26, described Sedensky's arguments as bordering on "frivolous" and "at its heart … an assertion that the records are exempt because 'I say so.' "
But if the state’s attorney’s legal arguments were flimsy, many see them as motivated primarily by a desire to protect the victims' families. Called the “the empathetic guardian of the victims' memories” by local press, Sedensky pressed his legal case to shield families from reliving the horror of that day.
From all accounts, the recordings are harrowing. Dispatchers received the first 911 call just after 9:35 a.m., and the first officer arrived less than four minutes later. But by then, a gunman, Adam Lanza, had already shot and killed 20 first-grade students and six adults. A minute after the first officer arrived, the gunman then turned one of his weapons on himself, according to Sedensky’s 44-page report of the rampage, released Nov. 25. Police dispatchers then received six more 911 calls from inside the school.
Indeed, the impending release of these 911 recordings has left some families upset.
"What parent could possibly want that," said Nicole Hockley, whose son Dylan was among the 20 children slain, according to ABC News. "It serves no public good, it's not in anybody's interest. It's not the way I want Dylan to be remembered."
Prescott’s ruling acknowledges as much:
“The court recognizes and is deeply sensitive to the fact that the families and friends of those who died in this tragedy, as well as others in the greater Newtown community, may desire that the 911 audio recordings never be released," Prescott wrote. The judge, too, after hearing the audio himself, acknowledged that their release will probably be "a searing reminder of the horror and pain of that awful day."
But according to the law, he reasoned, these tapes must eventually be released. "The question is not if, but when. Further delaying their release will not ultimately serve to ameliorate the pain the recordings will likely cause to those directly impacted by the shootings."
The day of the shootings, the Associated Press faxed a FOI request to the Newtown Police Department seeking, among other records, copies of the 911 recordings. After receiving no response for more than a month, the AP made additional requests, but still received no response. On Jan. 23, 2013, it appealed to the state Freedom of Information Commission.
Near the end of February, the police formally rejected the AP’s request, saying the information was to be used in “prospective law enforcement action,” and thus did not have to be released.
The year-long legal wrangling on these matters ended Monday with Sedensky’s statement.
“After consultation with the Office of the Chief State’s Attorney and the attorney for the Town of Newtown who is a party to the appeal in the Superior Court, we have decided not to pursue an appeal on the denial of the application for a stay,” the state’s attorney said, in a statement.
Defending the release of the recordings and the importance of transparency, Prescott wrote that they will help the public gauge the appropriateness of law enforcement’s response to the shootings. They could also “vindicate and support the professionalism and bravery of the first responders ... who have undoubtedly been subject to emotional turmoil and pain...,” he added.
"Delaying the release of the audio recordings, particularly where the legal justification to keep them confidential is lacking, only serves to fuel speculation about and undermine confidence in our law enforcement officials," he wrote.