Judge backs off sanctions threat, gets 'lay of land' after Covenant School records leak

Not many questions were answered in Chancellor I’Ashea Myles’ courtroom Monday morning after a week filled with controversy in the Covenant School shooting records lawsuit.

Myles told the attorneys and packed gallery Monday morning that she was prepared to release a 60-page ruling on which records should be released last week, but she stopped herself once she got word that conservative news outlet and party to the case the Tennessee Star had published articles with leaked documents.

Myles initially called Monday’s hearing threatening contempt proceedings and sanctions against the Star and its editor-in-chief Michael Patrick Leahy for the publication of the materials. Free speech advocates argued such sanctions would have been unconstitutional. But that’s not what was discussed Monday.

Chancellor I'Ashea Myles talks to attorney Rick Hollow during the show cause hearing over the release of documents related to the Covenant School shooting at the Historic Metro Courthouse in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, April 16, 2024.
Chancellor I'Ashea Myles talks to attorney Rick Hollow during the show cause hearing over the release of documents related to the Covenant School shooting at the Historic Metro Courthouse in Nashville, Tenn., Tuesday, April 16, 2024.

What ended up happening was unusual. Myles limited the hearing to getting “the lay of the land” of the records case after the leak, asking the lawyers for all three sides — Metro, Covenant and the records requesters — if they felt the case was still live and relevant. They all said it was.

Deborah Fisher, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said she’d never been to a hearing like Monday’s.

“This was much ado about nothing, in my view,” Fisher said.

Russell Nobile, a lawyer from the conservative activist group Judicial Watch representing former Hamilton County Sheriff James Hammond and the Tennessee Firearms Association, said it did seem that things had settled down a bit since Myles’ initial order.

“Everyone came in a little hot, and I think it’s cooling off some,” Nobile said.

Daniel Horwitz, a First Amendment and criminal defense lawyer brought on to represent Leahy and the Star following Myles’ order threatening contempt actions, was glad to see that Leahy wasn’t being prosecuted.

“I don’t want reporters going to jail for lawful reporting,” Horwitz said.

In early June, the Tennessee Star published dozens of articles with information from photographs of the shooter’s journal that it said it had obtained from a source. Parents of Covenant School students said on Monday that the publication has been very hard on the children and families.

"As a parent, we want to protect our kids and prevent any further harm," said Stefan Banks, a parent of two children at the Covenant School present at the hearing. Their lawyers argued that the court could possibly prevent the release of materials other than the roughly 80 pages that the Star claimed it has already obtained.

Metro Legal on Monday all but pinned the leak to the Tennessee Star on former lieutenant Garet Davidson of the Metro Nashville Police Department. Davidson resigned in December and filed a lengthy complaint against the department alleging that police officials worked with lawmakers to pass legislation to abolish oversight boards.

Lora Fox from Metro Legal on Monday requested making Davidson an “involuntary plaintiff” to the case and then ordering him to return the documents. Myles did not seem thrilled with the idea and asked Fox if it was necessary, to which Fox said no.

On March 27, 2023, a former student entered the Covenant School in Nashville and shot and killed six people, including three third graders. They were 9-year-olds Evelyn Dieckhaus, William Kinney and Hallie Scruggs; headmaster Katherine Koonce; custodian Mike Hill; and substitute teacher Cynthia Peak.

In the days and weeks after the shooting, reporters and others requested certain records related to the shooting. Many of those requests were denied.

In response, six groups, including The Tennessean, sued Metro Nashville about a month after the shooting. They sought a court order to grant them access to several different records, most notably a pair of journals found in the shooter’s home and car, which was parked at the school.

Why is The Tennessean asking for the release of the records?

In seeking the records, The Tennessean has cited an interest in bringing to light "additional facts regarding this incident, societal and mental health issues, and issues regarding firearms more broadly, which have not yet been revealed through other means," according to the newspaper's complaint.

The records requested by The Tennessean are the documents in the shooter's possession prior to death, including those in the shooter's car and home; all police reports of the shooter in MNPD's possession; all calls for service to The Covenant School and the shooter's home from the past five years; and incident reports from MNPD's responses to the shooter's home on March 27.

The Tennessean has no plans to publish the writings verbatim and has sought to center coverage on public policy, the victims and the community.

Evan Mealins is the justice reporter for The Tennessean. Contact him at emealins@gannett.com or follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @EvanMealins.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Covenant School shooting documents case: Records leak delayed ruling