What we know about Covenant School shooter's writings as legal battle brews in Nashville

Nearly two months after a shooter killed six at The Covenant School in Nashville, records relating to the shooting, such as the shooter’s writings, have garnered growing public interest but have yet to be released by police.

A majority of Republican House lawmakers signed onto a letter to Metro Nashville Police Chief John Drake requesting the records ahead of a special legislative session on gun reform scheduled to begin Aug. 21.

Several lawsuits, including one by The Tennessean, have also been filed seeking the records.

Here’s what we know — and don’t know — about the records and the complex court fight to have them released.

What we know about the shooter’s writings

After shooting and killing the attacker, officers from the Metro Nashville Police Department found writings in the shooter’s car in the Covenant School parking lot.

During a search of the shooter’s residence later that day, police located some writings and a map of the attack and possible other targets, police said. The maps noted entrances to the school and the location of security cameras, police said.

In a news release shortly after the attack, police said the writings revealed that the shooting was “calculated and planned.”

Students from the Covenant School hold hands after getting off a bus to meet their parents at the reunification site at the Woodmont Baptist Church Monday, March 27, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.
Students from the Covenant School hold hands after getting off a bus to meet their parents at the reunification site at the Woodmont Baptist Church Monday, March 27, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.

How law enforcement have described the writings

Police in early April said the shooter spent months studying mass shootings and planning a Nashville shooting, based on the journals collected from Hale's car and bedroom.

However, police have not yet said they've been able to establish a clear motive for the shooting. Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Director David Rausch in early April described the writings as "ramblings" rather than writings that point to a clear motive.

Why police haven't released the shooter’s writings

The city has given several explanations for why they've withheld the shooter's writings.

In several denials to records requests, police cited an ongoing criminal investigation despite the shooter’s death and lack of a pending court case.

MNPD said in an April 24 denial letter to Sen. Todd Gardenhire that it is “unable to release” the records because doing so during an open criminal investigation would violate Rule 16 of the Tennessee Rules of Criminal Procedure. However, Rule 16 only provides authorities with the option to withhold records in those cases; it does not compel authorities to withhold records.

After Metro Nashville was sued for denying the records requests, MNPD then cited the litigation as the reason it couldn't release the records.

"Due to pending litigation filed this week, the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department has been advised by counsel to hold in abeyance the release of records related to the shooting at The Covenant School pending orders or direction of the court," the department posted on Twitter.

Metro Law Director Wally Dietz has also said that the city wants to give parents of Covenant students a chance to voice their concerns over the release of the records. Both The Covenant School and a group of Covenant parents have filed motions to intervene in lawsuits seeking the records.

Attorneys for the parents wrote they were worried that releasing the shooter's writings would cause further trauma for their children.

Why MNPD says there is still an open investigation

While MNPD believes the shooter acted alone, “we do not know for sure,” wrote Lt. Brent Gibson, overseeing MNPD’s investigation of the Covenant School shooting, in a May 17 court filing.

“Even though the assailant died at the school, the criminal investigative file does not automatically, instantly close. Investigators must still work to gather and analyze evidence in the case and to determine if related crimes were committed, are being planned, or whether other people were involved,” Gibson wrote.

Gibson said police are reviewing the shooter’s bank, social media, phone, Internet and other records, and interviewing all individuals identified in those records to see if the shooter had assistance in planning the attack or purchasing weapons.

How long MNPD’s investigation could take

The investigation is expected to last another 12 months, Gibson said.

Who has seen the shooter’s writings

Besides law enforcement, the only person known to have viewed some of the writings is Davidson County Chancery Court Judge I’Ashea Myles.

The city on May 12 turned over the writings found in the shooter’s car and proposed redactions for an in camera review ahead of hearings in a lawsuit seeking their release. The city didn’t deliver the writings from the shooter’s home, citing the ongoing criminal investigation.

The Historic Metropolitan Nashville Courthouse pictured on May 16, 2023.
The Historic Metropolitan Nashville Courthouse pictured on May 16, 2023.

When records from the shooting may be released

We don’t know when the requested records may be made public. Some withheld records may be released sooner than others.

Police have indicated that they are willing to release a redacted version of the writings found in the shooter’s car. Assistant Police Chief Mike Hagar wrote in a May 17 court filing that MNPD doesn’t believe doing so would impede the investigation.

“Therefore, the MNPD does not object to the release of the redacted [writings], if after having heard from all interested parties and the Covenant parents, if this Court should so direct,” Hagar wrote.

The remainder of the requested records — including writings from the shooter’s home, the shooter’s toxicology reports and MNPD communications about the shooter’s writings — “should remain confidential until the conclusion of the investigation or any resulting criminal case,” Hagar wrote.

What we know about other records that have been requested

Media outlets, citizens and activist groups have requested many other records relating to the Covenant School shooting, many of which have been denied. Police gave an update on the existence and status of some of those records in a May 17 court filing.

  • Communications between MNPD and the Office of the Mayor regarding the shooter’s writings: Nine emails.

  • Communications between MNPD and the White House regarding the shooter’s writings: None.

  • Communications between MNPD and the Office of the Director of Community Safety of Nashville: None.

  • Police reports or received complaints about the shooter from Jan. 1, 2020, until the shooting: None.

Police declined to give an update on other requested records because they are part of the criminal investigation.

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

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: What to know about Nashville school shooter's writings amid legal fight