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November 27, 2013

Judge orders release of Sandy Hook 911 recordings

The Hartford Courant

NEWTOWN, Conn. — A Superior Court judge Tuesday ordered the release of the 911 calls made from Sandy Hook Elementary School to Newtown police on the morning of the Dec. 14, 2012, shootings, rejecting arguments from prosecutors that the audio recordings should remain private.

At Superior Court in New Britain, Judge Eliot D. Prescott, who listened to the 911 calls Monday, ordered the tapes to be released on Dec. 4 at 2 p.m.

In a 33-page decision released Tuesday, Prescott criticized Danbury State's Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky III's efforts to keep the tapes private. He described Sedensky's argument for continued seal as bordering on "frivolous" and "at its heart … an assertion that the records are exempt because 'I say so.'"

The Freedom of Information Commission in September ordered Newtown police to release tapes of 911 calls made from inside the school during the attack that killed 20 first-graders and six educators, ruling unanimously that the calls were not exempt from mandatory disclosure. Sedensky appealed the ruling in court and sought a stay of the order to release the tapes.

Prescott on Tuesday denied Sedensky's motion for a stay and dismissed the claims Sedensky made in his appeal. The release of the 911 calls, which are ordinarily public record, became a controversial issue and some individuals most affected by the tragedy had asked that the tapes be kept private.

"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, adding that the attention that will follow their release will probably be "a searing reminder of the horror and pain of that awful day."

But the eventual release of the tapes was inevitable, Prescott wrote. "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."

Prescott wrote that the release of the tapes would allow the public to evaluate law enforcement's response on Dec. 14. He said that making the 911 calls public could both illustrate the bravery of first-responders and help the public weigh what improvements could be made in police response to an active shooter situation.

"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.

Sedensky had argued that the recordings should remain sealed because they contained information related to child abuse. Prescott dismissed those claims, which he said Sedensky made without even listening to the recordings.

Prescott said that based on Sedensky's argument, all records and information pertaining to the shooting would be confidential, as would all records of other high-profile crimes involving minors, such as the 2007Cheshire home invasions. Under Sedensky's reasoning, the judge wrote, "Any record containing any information regarding a shooting of a seventeen year old by a rival gang member would be exempt from disclosure," regardless of whether it met one of the exemptions under Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act.

Sedensky on Monday closed the criminal investigation into the shootings without filing any charges, but he previously had cited pending law enforcement action as a reason to keep the tapes private. Prescott said state law does not require that an investigation be closed prior to release of records, and said Sedensky failed to demonstrate how the release of tapes would interfere with the investigation or any potential prosecution. When the FOI Commission made its ruling in June, there was nothing to suggest that any charges would be filed, Prescott wrote.

Sedensky also had asserted that the 911 calls were signed witness statements and that their release could endanger witness safety. After listening to the tapes himself, Prescott said that there was nothing in them that would suggest the release would threaten the safety of the 911 callers.

The recordings of the calls, described in the decision as "harrowing and disturbing," will be released next week, pending an appeal from the state.

Sedensky said in an emailed statement that he is "reviewing the judge's decision and once that review is complete will determine what action he will take." He said the review would be complete prior to the scheduled release date of Dec. 4.

Copyright 2013 The Hartford Courant

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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