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'Dead suspect loophole' invoked to keep Uvalde shooting records secret

Flowers, balloons and crosses by the Robb Elementary School sign, behind police caution tape.
Patricia Lim
Pete Arredondo, chief of the Uvalde CISD Police Department, reportedly made the decision not to confront the shooter at Robb Elementary School for more than an hour.

Since the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde on May 24, Texas officials have shared contradictory information with the public. To get the truth, reporters can turn to public information like 911 calls, police dispatch recordings and body cameras.

TPR and other news organizations filed open records requests for public documents related to the shooting. But they were denied. Officials cited numerous Texas Open Records Act exemptions — including one called the Dead Suspect Loophole — because the gunman died in police custody.

The Dead Suspect Loophole is a maneuver that's been used repeatedly by Texas law enforcement agencies to deny family members and the public the details about cases when someone charged with a crime dies while in custody. Law enforcement is able to accurately claim it is not required to turn over the needed information because a criminal case is still pending, even though the suspect is dead.

Related: Is It Time To Close The 'Dead Suspect Loophole'?

“The policy consideration is a good one. Maybe you're wrongfully accused of something; this was meant to protect the accused. And now it's been flipped on its head,” said State Rep. Joe Moody, vice chair of the state house committee investigating the shooting.

For years, he's worked to close the Dead Suspect Loophole. He said law enforcement has taken advantage of it to hide information when a suspect dies in police custody. That’s what happened to Graham Dyer.

“My wife and I got the most dreaded phone call that any parent can ever receive: Our son had been arrested by the Mesquite Police Department. Graham was very gravely injured,” said Robert Dyer, who testified in 2019 to the Texas legislature about the night his son died in police custody.

Graham had taken LSD and was having a bad reaction. He was picked up and charged with assaulting an officer. Then, Mesquite police refused to release documents and videos to the Dyer family that would show what led to his death.

“When somebody dies in police custody, I should think that’s when we want to open all of our records,” Dyer said.

But that’s not how the Texas police union sees it. The group objected to Moody’s bill, and Gov. Greg Abbott threatened to veto it. It never passed.

The Dyer family eventually did get the information through a federal Freedom of Information request. That took over two years. This could offer a clue about what to expect with information from Uvalde.

But Moody says his committee will release a report about what went wrong at Robb Elementary.

“That's the job of this committee is to lay bare the facts. And that's what we intend to do,” Moody told TPR.

Still, despite promises of openness, the committee is essentially operating in secret and not releasing who the witnesses are, their testimony and even the specific goals of the investigation.

Kelley Shannon, director of the Freedom of Information Foundation, said because of a lack of trust, the public deserves unfiltered information.

“Transparency and openness is the key to healing and moving on, if it's even possible from something like this,” Shannon said at an open government seminar in San Antonio, which focused on developments 60 miles away in Uvalde.

“I think what we're seeing is an overall mood of non-transparency happening in Uvalde,” Shannon said. “It runs from the intimidation of the reporters that we're seeing there to blocking photographers from being able to take pictures to threatening to have secret meetings, maybe even having secret public meetings. We don't know.”

Shannon promised reporters are not going to give up until the whole truth comes out about the police response that day in Uvalde. She said the 19 children and two teachers who died deserve that.

David Martin Davies is a veteran journalist with more than 30 years of experience covering Texas, the border and Mexico.
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