Uvalde district attorney fights release of public records against wishes of most families

Uvalde district attorney fights release of public records against wishes of most families
1 year 3 months 2 weeks ago Wednesday, March 08 2023 Mar 8, 2023 March 08, 2023 1:52 PM March 08, 2023 in News
Source: Texastribune.org
A memorial sprung up last year in Uvalde for victims of the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School. Credit: Evan L'Roy/The Texas Tribune

"Uvalde district attorney fights release of public records against wishes of most families" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

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Uvalde’s district attorney has joined the Texas Department of Public Safety in fighting the release of public records related to last year’s mass shooting at Robb Elementary School, arguing that all of the families who lost children want them withheld. But attorneys for a vast majority of the families are refuting that claim, saying that the information should be made public.

“These Uvalde families fundamentally deserve the opportunity to gain the most complete factual picture possible of what happened to their children,” wrote Brent Ryan Walker, one of the attorneys who represents the parents of 16 deceased children and one who survived, in a court affidavit filed Tuesday evening.

Numerous news organizations, including The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, are suing DPS for records that could provide a more complete picture of law enforcement’s response to the shooting, which left 19 students and two teachers dead in the border community.

The state’s top police agency has refused to release records, including incident reports, internal communications, ballistic reports and body-camera footage.

Last week, Uvalde District Attorney Christina Mitchell supported DPS’ position in a court filing. Disclosing such records could jeopardize any criminal charges Mitchell may seek in response to an investigation by the Texas Rangers, her office wrote.

Mitchell did not respond to multiple requests for comment. She previously told the Tribune that “every adult that was in that building is going to be looked at,” including law enforcement officials. She has not clarified whether she plans to pursue prosecutions.

Attorneys for the coalition of news organizations argued that DPS is required to show how releasing records could harm its investigation. The agency, attorneys wrote, has not provided that explanation but instead asserted that Mitchell has “unlimited power” to unilaterally decide what information should be withheld. DPS officials did not respond to requests for comment.

“By claiming the possibility of a future prosecution (without even identifying potential charges), the District Attorney seeks to withhold from the public not just sensitive investigative materials, but every single piece of information that could shed light on the tragedy and the law enforcement response, including information about the deceased shooter,” the attorneys wrote.

In a court filing asking a judge to block the release of records, Mitchell’s office claimed that the families of every child who was killed shared her view.

“All of the families of the deceased children have stated to District Attorney Mitchell that they do not want the investigation of the Texas Rangers released until she has had ample time to review the case and present it to an Uvalde grand jury, if appropriate,” her office wrote.

At least two parents told ProPublica and the Tribune that Mitchell never asked for their input on the release of records. Separately, attorneys representing numerous families said they disagreed with Mitchell’s attempt to withhold the records related to the investigation.

“To date our attempts to gain information that these families should be entitled to receive from their government officials has been thwarted under the vague allegation of ongoing investigations. This attempt by Ms. Mitchell to intervene and prevent the release of this report is another example,” said Robert Paul Wilson, a lawyer representing the families of a teacher and a student killed in the shooting as well as children who survived.

Since the May 24 massacre at the elementary school, state and local officials have offered conflicting accounts of what happened. Gov. Greg Abbott initially praised the response, then said he was misled when authorities revealed that law enforcement waited more than an hour to confront the gunman.

Footage and records separately obtained by news organizations have helped to show the flawed law enforcement response and additional failures that further delayed emergency medical treatment.

Brett Cross, whose 10-year-old son, Uziyah Garcia, was killed during the shooting, said that he is torn on whether the records should be released, but that Mitchell had not reached out to him.

“She didn’t ask me, so she ain’t being factual,” Cross said.

He said his efforts to hold local officials accountable and to seek transparency have come, in part, as a result of journalists’ scrutiny of local officials’ actions after the shooting.

“At the same time, I don’t want anything to happen to jeopardize the case, but I also feel like she’s not going to do everything in her power to do this correctly,” he said.

Thomas Leatherbury, the director of the First Amendment Clinic and adjunct law professor at Southern Methodist University, said he has been disappointed by government officials’ efforts to avoid releasing public records related to the Uvalde shooting.

“It’s interesting to see the lengths that are gone to, to not be transparent, not let the public see the information and make up their own minds about the quality of the investigation and gain additional facts about an issue that was of such great public concern,” Leatherbury said.

Disclosure: Southern Methodist University has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2023/03/08/uvalde-district-attorney-fights-release-public-records-despite-family/.

The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.

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