Covenant School families fight release of shooter’s manifesto
Politicians and advocacy groups call for law enforcement to make the writings public
A judge in Nashville, Tenn., is deciding whether making the manifesto of The Covenant School shooter public would help or hurt efforts to prevent similar tragedies.
A former Covenant student shot and killed six people at the school on March 27 using a legally purchased AR-15 style rifle. Police responded quickly and returned fire, killing the suspect before she could take any more lives. The next day, Nashville Police Chief John Drake revealed the shooter left behind a manifesto. Investigators also found journals about school shootings under her bed. Other property seized at the home of the shooter’s parents included a suicide note, a sawed-off shotgun, two memoirs, and five Covenant yearbooks.
The National Police Association, the Tennessee Firearms Association, and The Tennessean filed or joined lawsuits earlier this month demanding the Metro Nashville Police Department release Hale’s statement. Families of The Covenant School students asked a judge to keep it private. Attorney Eric Osborne, who represents 100 of the 112 families at the school, told the judge at a May 22 court hearing that his clients’ foremost concern is the safety of their school and others. “Writings like this tend to inspire additional school shootings,” he said during the hearing.
The city’s attorney, Lora Barkenbus Fox, said most of the material included in Hale’s manifesto should not be published, the New York Post reported. Osborne argued the families should be able to testify in court. Representatives for the school and church also filed motions, insisting they should be allowed to voice their concerns. Releasing the manifesto “may impair or impede [the church’s] ability to protect its interests,” the filing argues, if it includes a layout of church facilities or “confidential information pertaining to Covenant Church employees.”
The lobbying firm handling communications for the church and school said they are not doing interviews at this time. “The filings speak for themselves,” Ingram Group member Molly Sudderth said in an email.
Late Wednesday, Davidson County Chancery Court Judge I’Ashea Myles issued an order granting both the parents’ and Covenant’s requests to argue their points in court.
On May 15, more than 60 members of the Tennessee House Republican Caucus signed a letter to Police Chief John Drake thanking the department for its “heroic response.” The legislators also argued that the release of the manifesto is “critical to the General Assembly’s ability to construct effective solutions that can prevent future acts of violence.” Republican Gov. Bill Lee called upon the legislature to consider public safety legislation in a special session scheduled for August 21.
Law enforcement agencies cited the Tennessee Supreme Court’s 2016 decision in The Tennessean v. Metro Government of Nashville and Davidson County. The decision allows law enforcement to deny public record requests to protect an ongoing criminal prosecution.
Police departments often confer with the local prosecutor to ensure a release of information won’t jeopardize a case, especially if more people than the shooter were involved, said James Dudley, a criminal justice professor and 32-year San Francisco Police Department veteran. But lawyer and executive director for the Tennessee Firearms Association, John Harris, questioned whether this incident qualifies as an ongoing criminal investigation. “The only person that’s been identified in the criminal activity has been deceased for a month,” he told the New York Post.
If the manifesto is released, Dudley said a judge will likely agree to redact names or “trigger warnings that might send somebody off into a similar act.”
Tom Teves lost his 24-year-old son when a shooter killed Alex Teves and 11 others at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo. “When you publish a manifesto, you give these individuals a platform they don’t deserve,” he said. “It gets other people killed.”
Teves’ organization, No Notoriety, advocates for an end to giving shooters media attention. He points to studies that have demonstrated the contagion effect of media reports. “They want to be heard,” he said. “Why would we give them exactly what they want?”
John Kelly, a criminal profiler and psychotherapist says mass shooter manifestos are rare “and likely won’t be the driving factor behind the next mass murder.” He agrees that mass murderers are motivated by “hate and fame,” but without access to the Nashville shooter’s manifesto, he said, we can’t fully understand her motive or the emotional disorder that may have contributed to her actions.
Kelly believes keeping the manifesto in the dark rewards the writing of it in a different way: “Evil can only really operate under the cover of darkness. Exposing the manifesto to the light enables people to have conversations about the evil that drove [the suspect] to mass murder and how to prevent the next attack.”
J. Pete Blair trains law enforcement officers across the country on how to respond to mass shootings. He directs the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University and advocates for the Don’t Name Them campaign. It’s a shooter’s desire “to get their issue out there…that motivates the crime,” he said. But he doesn’t oppose releasing the manifesto in a limited capacity for researchers and law enforcement agencies to examine. “The point here is not to act like the person didn’t exist,” he said, “but not to allow that person to get a platform to speak from because they did something horrible.”
About two weeks after the shooting at Covenant, George Grant, a pastor and author, met with fellow Tennessee pastors to grieve and pray. “There are multiple layers to the way people are processing,” he said. While some want to understand what drove the shooter to such a horrific act, Grant said there are others who believe releasing the evidence may only amplify the pain. “So, many of us are of two minds,” he said. “All of it is painful. Having more news stories is painful. And yet, we don’t want anybody to forget.”