The Disingenuous Arguments Behind the One-Year Delay in Releasing the Sandy Hook 911 Calls


Today, nearly a year after Adam Lanza murdered 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, the city finally released recordings of 911 calls made from the scene of that horrifying crime. The long delay was due to opposition by State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky, who while overseeing the investigation of the massacre became so concerned about the feelings of the victims' families that he lost sight of his legal obligations. Connecticut's Freedom of Information Act creates a presumption in favor of making public records public, and Sedensky fell far short of showing that the 911 recordings qualified for any of the recognized exceptions. 

How far short? In his November 26 order upholding the Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission's rejection of Sedensky's bid to keep the recordings under wraps, Superior Court Judge Eliot Prescott said one of the prosecutor's arguments "borders on the frivolous." He was referring to Sedensky's claim that 911 calls, which are routinely released by police in cases that attract public attention, should be treated like "signed statements from witnesses" taken as part of a criminal investigation.

Prescott was similarly unimpressed by Sedensky's claim that the recordings would reveal the identities of previously unnamed witnesses, subjecting them to "threat or intimidation." Prescott concluded that "the plaintiff has not come close to meeting his burden to demonstrate that such circumstances exist in this case." Having listened to the calls, the judge noted that "only one individual is mentioned by name, and there is nothing to suggest his or her identity as a witness is currently unknown to the public." Furthermore, the only evidence Sedensky cited that such exposure might result in threat or intimidation was a reference to a man who lived across the street from the school and sheltered children who escaped during Lanza's attack. Sedensky said this Good Samaritan was "bothered by what is going on in the media, in terms of people writing things about him."

Sedensky also argued that releasing the 911 recordings would jeopardize "prospective law enforcement action." What action might that be, you may wonder, since the perpetrator killed himself before police entered the school? Prescott wondered the same thing. Sedensky argued that even if he did not plan to prosecute anyone the case was not closed until he said it was, and releasing the recordings before then would be unacceptably risky. "This court disagrees with the plaintiff's expansive definition of 'law enforcement action,'" Prescott wrote. "The plaintiff has cited no legal authority for his broad characterization of the phrase." Even if a prosecution were possible, the judge observed, Sedensky had not explained why letting the public hear the 911 calls would compromise it.

Even more of a stretch was Sedensky's argument that the 911 recordings constituted records of "child abuse" that by law had to be kept confidential. As Prescott patiently shows, the statute on which Sedensky relied very clearly refers to records kept by the Department of Children and Families concerning child abuse by "(1) a person responsible for such child's health, welfare, or care, (2) a person given access to the child by such responsible person, or (3) a person entrusted with the care of a child." The confidentiality requirement does not apply to the murder of children by total strangers, a kind of violence that is handled by "the appropriate local law enforcement agency."

On the whole, Prescott concluded, Sedensky's arguments "lack merit." That is not surprising, since they were nothing more than covers for his actual motive, which was to shield the parents of Lanza's victims from further pain. That impulse is understandable, but it does not carve out an exception to the Freedom of Information Act. If it did, police and prosecutors could suppress information about crimes at will by arguing that releasing it would cause victims or their survivors further suffering. Any decent person feels for the families devastated by the Sandy Hook massacre. But there is nothing admirable about Sedensky's willingness to sacrifice the rule of law, government transparency, and freedom of the press on the altar of sympathy.