Judge: Newtown 911 tapes to remain secret
Judge Eliot Prescott said he will listen to the recordings, then issue a decision at a hearing scheduled for Nov. 25
By Ken Dixon
NEW BRITAIN — The 911 recordings from the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre will remain secret for at least two more weeks, a Superior Court judge ruled on Friday.
Judge Eliot Prescott said he will listen to the recordings, then issue a decision at a hearing scheduled for Nov. 25.
His decision culminated a two-and-a-half hour argument over a September ruling by the state Freedom of Information Commission that ordered the release of recorded phone calls that Newtown police received from the Newtown school last Dec. 14, when Adam Lanza murdered 20 first graders and six adults, before committing suicide.
Danbury State's Attorney Stephen J. Sedensky III argued that since his active investigation is equal to a law enforcement action, he should be able to keep the recordings away from the public under state laws.
Attorneys for the Associated Press and the Freedom of Information Commission claimed that the public needs to hear the recordings to judge the police response to the murders.
Usually, local police routinely release 911 recordings to reporters after murders or high-profile crimes, but Sedensky said the Newtown murders are different.
"We're talking about a crime occurring as those calls are being made," Sedensky told Prescott. "This case, from the time the calls were made, this was a criminal case. The facts of this case, where you have the 911 call being made on the murder of children as it occurs, I don't think we'll ever see that situation again," he said. "The public is not represented by the Associated Press. If the public never hears those cries for help during this process, they won't be harmed."
Prescott noted that it has been 11 months since the murders and the tapes would likely be included in Sedensky's pending final report that he has promised sometime this fall.
"Can you articulate what harm to your client may occur if you have to wait a few months longer?" Prescott asked William S. Fish, the attorney for the Associated Press reporter who first asked for the recordings within hours of the school massacre.
"There is generic harm," Fish replied. He said that Sedensky is trying to read state law on the confidentiality of child abuse cases too broadly, with the danger of profound ramifications.
"Did the General Assembly in writing those words mean those words to effectively say that every time a 17-year-old is injured, or shot in Bridgeport, shot in Hartford, all the things that can happen in the state of Connecticut that all the records related to that are now confidential?" Fish said. "That is simply not the law."
Prescott said he would reluctantly listen to the possibly graphic recordings, which were presented to him later in the afternoon by Victor R. Perpetua, the lawyer for the Freedom of Information Commission.
"It's not something I want to do, but it's something that I feel I have to do," the judge said.
"I think it's very important that your honor listen to these tapes," Perpetua said, adding that eight Freedom of Information Commission members and a hearing officer "with no stake in the outcome," listened to them and unanimously ruled they should be made public.
"Every time someone calls 911 there is a belief that there is a crime," Perpetua said. "That is part of the record, but to me the more-important part of the record was what response did that person get? How was that information taken? What was the time period?
"I don't mean to say anything wrong happened. I don't know one way or the other. At a certain point people start to ask 'what is there to hide?' I'm saying the longer it's delayed, the more questions that are raised and that delays in providing access to this kind of record increases public insecurity about their police departments," Perpetua said.
Nathan C. Zezula, attorney for the Newtown Police Department, said his interest in preventing the release of the recordings is to keep them away from "voyeuristic interests."
Prescott interrupted Zezula and said he has to interpret state law, not cynically prejudge people's motives.
"I can't sit here, counselor and conduct a poll and ask the world how many people want to hear these 911 tapes because they'll find it sickeningly entertaining; how many of them want to hear them for totally prurient interests; or how many have legitimate concerns as citizens about knowing how its government is functioning," the judge said.
"The issue is this ultimately is a public policy choice as made by the Legislature in balancing all of the interests: of crime victims; of law enforcement and not getting in the way of law enforcement doing their sworn duty; and the right of the public to know. And it is a delicate balance and my job is not to ascribe the right or wrong motives to people who want to hear these tapes, but to figure out how has the Legislature struck that balance."
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