A Superior Court judge refused Tuesday to stay the Freedom of Information Commission’s order that Newtown police release tapes of the 911 calls made after gunfire erupted at Sandy Hook Elementary School, killing 26 students and staff.
Judge Eliot D. Prescott ordered police to release the tapes by 2 p.m. on Dec. 4 unless Danbury State’s Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky III can convince the Appellate Court that the ruling should be reversed.
“Delaying the release of the audio recordings, particularly where the legal justification to keep them confidential is lacking, only serves to fuel speculation about and undermines confidence in our law enforcement officials,” Prescott wrote.
Sedensky said he was reviewing the decision.
The FOI Commission ordered the release of the tapes Sept. 25 in response to a complaint by the Associated Press. The order was made after the FOI hearing officer reviewed the tapes privately, as did the judge.
It is well-established that 911 tapes are public records under the Freedom of Information Act, but Sedensky argued that they should be withheld as relating to an incident of child abuse or that they be treated as signed witness statements. He also said that their release would have a “chilling effect” on others who may need to call 911.
The judge rejected those arguments as a matter of law and logic.
“There is no dispute in this case that the audio recordings of the 911 calls made from the Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, are public records within the FOIA,” he wrote.
Under Sedensky’s effort to use confidential provisions relating to the reporting of child abuse, the judge wrote that under the prosecutor’s rationale, all records pertaining to the Sandy Hook shooting would be exempt from public disclosure.
The judge said the calls are harrowing, but they do not identify any children, nor do they describe any injuries to a child.
“No children are identified by name. No caller indicates whether he or she could see whether any child has been injured,” the judge wrote.
Sedensky also tried to justify the refusal to release the tapes by claiming that they are exempt from disclosure under a law that allows authorities to keep confidential signed witness statements in criminal investigations.
“The plaintiff’s claim borders on the frivolous,” Prescott wrote.
The judge also concluded that the public interest would not be served by blocking disclosure of the tapes. He flatly rejected Sedensky’s claim that their release would have a chilling effect on those who might need to call 911.
“There is not factual or legal support for this claim,” he wrote.
The judge acknowledged that the release of the tapes likely will be a reminder of the horror of the attack, but the reality is that the material eventually will be made public.
“The question is not if, but when,” he wrote. “Further delaying their release will not ultimately serve to ameliorate the pain the recordings will likely cause to those directly impacted by the shootings.”
The ruling comes a day after Sedensky released a 44-page report concluding that 20-year-old Adam Lanza acted alone in planning and carrying out the attack, but offering no motive.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said he was not surprised that the report did not answer the question that’s haunted Connecticut since the shootings: Why?
“How do you answer the unanswerable?” Malloy said.