UVALDE, Texas — One year later, journalists across the country are locked in a legal battle with the Texas Department of Public Safety over public records tied to the Uvalde shooting. More than a dozen news organizations, including TEGNA, which owns KHOU 11, filed a lawsuit against the agency last August.
On March 8, 2023, a judge in Austin, Texas heard arguments from both sides, but it could be months, or years, before the judge renders a decision. In Texas, there is no time limit for judges to issue a ruling.
Reid Pillifant, an attorney with Haynes Boone, the firm representing the media said there is a danger that those records could be withheld forever.
When a gunman opened fire in a Robb elementary school classroom, 376 law enforcement officers responded, including Texas DPS troopers. It took 77 minutes for officers to confront the shooter. That left victims’ families, the community, and journalists wanting to know why, what went wrong?
“It’s important for the public to understand what happened that day because it was one of the worst attacks in our nation’s history and certainly in Texas,” Pillifant said.
Journalists have requested emails, video footage, call logs, 911 tapes and other items that would give the public a clearer picture about what happened. The DPS denied most requests saying the release would “interfere with an ongoing investigation”.
“The idea that the release of these records is somehow going to comprise an investigation, or process or prosecution is just, frankly, ludicrous and it just continues to kick the can on accountability and transparency,” Pillifant said.
Some of the relatives who lost loved ones joined the lawsuit in March, after DPS also denied their requests for records.
Pillifant said there is a chance that the Uvalde records could remain under lock and key permanently, under what’s known as the “dead suspect loophole”.
“There’s a loophole in Texas law that if a case ends without a conviction, those records can be withheld forever. So, in this case, if no one is convicted because the shooter is dead, he won’t be convicted. If no one is convicted, then these agencies can withhold these records forever,” Pillifant said.
There is a bill going through the Texas Legislature that could help these records become public. House Bill 30 aims to require law enforcement agencies to release records in cases, like Uvalde, where the suspect has died.