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Conn. panel orders release of Newtown 911 tapes

Connecticut’s Freedom of Information Commission yesterday ordered the release of the 911 tapes from last year’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, ruling in favor of an appeal by the Associated Press for access to records withheld by investigators.

The recordings could shed light on the law enforcement response to one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.

The FOI panel accepted the recommendation of its hearing officer, Kathleen Ross, who last month rejected an argument from prosecutors that releasing the tapes could harm the investigation into the Dec. 14 massacre. Prosecutors said they would appeal the commission’s ruling in Connecticut’s courts.

Twenty-six people, including 20 first-graders, were killed inside the school by the gunman, Adam Lanza, who committed suicide as the police arrived.

On the day of the shooting, the AP requested documents, including copies of 911 calls, as it does routinely in news gathering, in part to examine the police response to the massacre that sent officers from multiple agencies racing to the school. If the recordings are released, the AP would review the content and determine what, if any, of it would meet the news cooperative’s standards for publication.

The town’s police department denied the AP’s request, citing legal exemptions that allow the government to withhold documents if they’re being used for an ongoing investigation and should remain secret. The AP appealed to the FOI commission.

In testimony before Ross on June 3, Newtown’s police chief said a search for the records was not conducted until three days before his appearance at the FOI commission hearing.

The prosecutor leading the investigation, Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen Sedensky III, directed the Newtown police not to turn over the recordings while the inquiry was under way. He argued at the June hearing that in addition to jeopardizing the investigation, releasing the tapes could subject witnesses to harassment from conspiracy theorists and violate survivors from the school who deserve special protection as victims of child abuse.

In a response earlier this month to the hearing officer who dismissed his arguments, Sedensky said criminals could benefit by the release of material that could later become relevant to the investigation.

“Under the ruling in the proposed decision, the investigators and the state’s attorney would be at the mercy of a criminal seeking to find out what law enforcement knows before law enforcement knows the significance of an individual piece of evidence,” he wrote.

A Connecticut law passed earlier this year in response to the massacre creates exemptions to the freedom-of-information law for the release of photographs, film, video and other images depicting a homicide victim if those records constitute “an unwarranted invasion” on the privacy of the surviving family members. It also created a one-year moratorium on the release of certain portions of audiotape and other recordings – with the exception of 911 tapes – in which the condition of a homicide victim is described.

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