HARTFORD, Connecticut — A state Freedom of Information commission on Monday ordered Newtown officials to provide it with 911 calls from the day of the shooting inside Sandy Hook Elementary School as it considers an appeal for their release by The Associated Press.
A hearing officer, Kathleen Ross, directed the town to provide the copies to the FOI commission within two weeks. She said the commission would weigh objections raised by investigators as it evaluates whether the material should be made available publicly.
The prosecutor leading the investigation into the massacre, Danbury State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky III, argued that releasing the calls could jeopardize the ongoing probe, subject witnesses to harassment from conspiracy theorists who have suggested the shooting never took place, and expose callers who should be protected as witnesses to a crime that amounted to child abuse.
"What you have here is a child abuse case," Sedensky said. "Twenty children were murdered."
A lone gunman, 20-year-old Adam Lanza, killed 20 first-grade children and six adults with a semiautomatic rifle on Dec. 14. He also killed his mother inside their Newtown home before driving to the school and killed himself as police arrived.
The AP requested documents including copies of 911 calls in part to examine how well law enforcement responded to one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.
The town ultimately denied the AP's request, citing legal exemptions that allow the government to withhold documents if they claim they're being used for an ongoing investigation and should remain secret. The AP appealed to the state's Freedom of Information Commission and compelled Newtown's police chief to testify about the records at the hearing.
The governor's office and legislative leaders also have taken steps to prevent 911 call recordings from ever being released. A pending legislative proposal supported by many of the victims' families would allow authorities to withhold from the public photographs, videos, 911 call recordings and other records depicting the physical condition of any victim of the shootings, unless the family gives written permission.
Newtown's police chief, Michael Kehoe, testified Monday that the police department withheld the 911 calls in part because of a request from Sedensky, who wrote to an attorney for the town in February that the calls should not be released because of the ongoing investigation. He said a search for documents was first conducted on May 31.
Sedensky said investigators have not identified any surviving suspects, but the state police investigation is likely to continue until late summer or early fall. Pressed by Ross to explain how the release of 911 calls could hurt the investigation, Sedensky said he could not speculate on how the case might develop.
Sedensky also said under questioning by Tim Jensen, a lawyer for the AP, that he had not listened to the 911 tapes himself.
"It doesn't seem to make a lot of sense to predict what you think might be on the tape, and then use that as a basis to get an exemption," Jensen said.
The request filed by the AP in December under the state's Freedom of Information law also sought arrest reports and police calls for service involving Sandy Hook Elementary School and Adam Lanza's home in Newtown. The request covered both the day of the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting and the years leading up it.
Kehoe said that prior to the shooting Newtown had records for only two police calls at the Lanza house: one for a suspicious person in 2003 and another for larceny in 2006.