NASHVILLE — Ownership of the writings of the Nashville school shooter is being transferred to the families of students at the school, an attorney representing the shooter's parents said Thursday.
Attorney David Raybin made the announcement in Davidson County Chancery Court as proceedings continue in lawsuits filed by news organizations and others over the documents.
State Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, has joined The Tennessean newspaper in suing for the writings of Audrey Hale, 28.
The former student was killed by police March 27 after attacking The Covenant School, a private Christian elementary school in Nashville.
Transferring ownership of the records to the parents bolsters their standing in efforts to block the release of the documents, Raybin said.
Davidson County Chancellor I'Ashea Myles has already granted the parents' intervention in the lawsuits. Petitioners seeking the records include the Tennessee Firearms Association and former Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond.
The documents remain in the custody of Metro Nashville Police Department and are unaffected by the change of ownership, Raybin said.
Hale was known to have mental health issues. Gardenhire and other lawmakers have said an understanding of those issues will help them going into an Aug. 21 special session planned by Republican Gov. Bill Lee to consider a law allowing judges to remove firearms from people deemed dangerous.
Much of Thursday's proceedings focused on whether to continue with the lawsuit in Myles' court as news groups, Gardenhire and others seek to have the issue of the families' intervention first heard by the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
Brent Leatherwood, a parent of three Covenant School students, told reporters after the hearing that transferring ownership of the materials to Covenant parents was "extraordinary by any definition.
"But you should know, that the parents and the families have asked our attorneys to leave no stone unturned as we pursue our objective to keep all of these writings out of the public domain and anything that might inspire future attacks on other communities," added Leatherwood, president of the Nashville-based Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. "We're still in the midst of deep grief. And that's not just us who are Covenant parents and Covenant families. It's the entire Nashville community."
Police have possession of Hale's guns — the shooter possessed two semi-automatic weapons as well as a handgun during the attack. They also have a suicide note, journals and drawings of the school.
Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake early on said Hale had written a "manifesto," which drew widespread notice, especially among GOP legislators who are wary of Lee's push for new judicial powers to remove firearms from people who are unstable. The governor insists his proposal is not a red flag law because, unlike those laws in other states, his plan would allow the person who owns firearms and faces losing them to participate in a judicial proceeding.
Two attorneys involved in the litigation downplayed Raybin's announcement.
"Let's talk about the Public Records Act, it means nothing," said attorney Rick Hollow, who has represented the Tennessee Press Association on public records and open meeting cases for decades.
"All this means nothing because who has the papers now? Metro," Hollow told the Chattanooga Times Free Press after Thursday's hearing. "Who was the request made to review, to look at those records? The petitioners."
Hollow said news organizations aren't saying they want custody of the papers.
He cited a 1989 case involving then-state Rep. Ted Ray Miller in which the Democratic lawmaker killed himself a day before an expected indictment by a federal grand jury on influence peddling charges. News organizations successfully sued and obtained the records.
"They're just saying we want to see them because they are a public record," Hollow said of news organizations. "They are presumptively a public record. So that's an issue between the petitioner and the custodian of the records, which is Metro PD. And that's all. The business about the estate passing the ownership, that's just wonderful and interesting but irrelevant to this particular thing."
John Harris, an attorney and also executive director of the Tennessee Firearms Association, offered a similar view.
"Whether it's the parents or the intervenors, it still really shouldn't substantially impact an open records case because what's being sought are the records that are in possession of the government," Harris said. "The judge can make of it what she wants, if that makes a difference. The Court of Appeals can look at it later on."