HARTFORD — State police must make available to the public personal documents seized from Adam Lanza’s house during the course of the investigation into the 2012 killings of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the state’s Freedom of Information Commission unanimously ruled Wednesday.
The ruling came as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request from The Courant seeking copies of documents mentioned in the state police’s report into the massacre but never made available to the public. The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, which oversees the state’s police force, has blocked The Courant’s efforts to obtain those documents since January 2014.
William Fish, the attorney representing The Courant, argued that the documents, which include a comic book written by Lanza titled “The Big Book of Granny,” were public records in part because of the state’s great expense related to the investigation and the worldwide media coverage that the shooting triggered.
“To stand in front of this commission and suggest that these records don’t pertain to the public’s interest is simply wrong,” Fish said.
Steven M. Barry, the attorney representing the state at the hearing, said the items were not public records because they were personal property of the Lanzas seized by warrant during the course of the investigation.
“These items are not a public record, they are seized property,” Barry said.
Barry said state police had an obligation to restrict access to personal property in such instances until either the courts directed them what to do with the items or the owner made a claim on them.
“This would turn the law enforcement exemption on its head if once [evidence] came into possession of state police that item was suddenly a public document,” Barry said.
Fish said that Barry was using the claim that the items were evidence as a blanket exception to circumvent the FOI statute because the state police had concluded the investigation into the shootings, Adam Lanza had taken his own life and the case was never going to wind up in court.
“The law enforcement exemption does not apply because the perpetrator is dead and there will be no prosecution,” he said.
When FOI Commissioner Jonathan Einhorn questioned Barry further on this interpretation of the statute, he said it was the state police’s position that it could hold evidence indefinitely in such circumstances.
“It’s the obligation of the police to sort of hold this for the owner,” Barry said.
Einhorn then questioned whether state police were being “inconsistent” in their interpretation of what was and wasn’t a public document.
“The police thought to disclose this already to the public,” Einhorn noted.
Kathleen K. Ross, the hearing officer who ruled in The Courant’s favor, noted in her report that the supervisor of the department’s legal affairs unit had not even looked at the documents that The Courant was seeking.
“Although she had not looked at the requested documents, she believed that some of the documents might be exempt from disclosure,” Ross wrote.
The commission unanimously voted to uphold Ross’ report without any debate.
Barry declined to comment after the hearing on the commission’s ruling. The Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection did not immediately comment on the decision Wednesday afternoon.
As of late Wednesday afternoon, The Courant had not received the requested documents. The state has 30 days to appeal.