Santa Fe shooting families renew push for autopsies, video after delayed Senate debate

A week after legislation that would give them access to long-awaited autopsy reports was pulled from a Senate hearing agenda, the families of the victims of the 2018 Santa Fe High School shooting returned to the Texas Capitol to testify in favor of an identical House bill they call a “last ditch effort” to get answers.

House Bill 3729 would give the families access to footage from the day of the shooting, and, some say, a sense of closure.

BACKGROUND: Five years after Santa Fe massacre, relatives still denied records of loved ones' last moments

“Imagine knowing how your child was born, how they ventured into this world, but not how they died, and how that would impact you,” said Rhonda Hart, whose 14-year-old daughter Kimberly was killed. “Not knowing how Kimberly died keeps me awake at night.”

Hart’s family is one of 10 that have been awaiting answers since the mass shooting. Prosecutors say they can’t release autopsy reports or videos from the school because it could jeopardize future criminal proceedings for the now 22-year-old shooter, who has been repeatedly declared mentally unfit for trial.

A Senate version of the bill, which would allow them to view the evidence if they agree to not copy or distribute it, was unexpectedly pulled from a committee agenda last week. State Sen. John Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, told the Dallas Morning News that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick had asked him to postpone the hearing after district attorneys voiced concerns that the bill would apply to open investigations in Uvalde, where a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School last May.

“SB435 needed some work in order to pass out of committee,” Patrick said in an emailed statement to Hearst Newspapers on Wednesday. “It will be heard next week and passed out of committee, and then off the Senate floor the following week. SB435 has my full support.”

Under current Texas law, evidence given to families would become public record. However, the bill the families are pursuing would give prosecutors an exception.

A representative of the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office, who is handling the case, advocated in favor of the bill Tuesday, saying it would take away concerns of the information becoming public.

“It’s been very difficult, if not heartbreaking, to not be able to give these families answers to their questions; the information that they’re looking for,” said Kevin Petroff, first assistant criminal district attorney in Galveston County. “We look forward to hoping this bill passes and to being able to answer some of those difficult questions and to assist those families.”

Alison Steele, whose 19-year-old daughter Cayley Mandadi was killed in a separate incident in 2017, said the bill sets an important standard for helping Texans cope with the aftermath of death and emotionally prepare for public disclosure of what happened. Steele said she waited four months to receive her daughter’s autopsy report.

“Even then, I was given just 22 minutes to come to terms with the medical examiner’s finding that she’d been brutally beaten to death,” Steele said. “Twenty-two minutes before that autopsy was emailed to every news organization that asked for it.”

Families of victims often receive details shortly before they become public or hear them in open courtrooms. Rosie Yanas, the mother of Santa Fe High shooting victim Chris Stone, said parents have the right to know what happened to their children earlier.

“I can’t tell you anything about my son, how he passed away,” Yanas said. “This is not something that I want to learn in a court setting. I have my heart set on that we will see that day one day. But this isn’t something I want to learn there. I need to learn it in my own privacy, anywhere they can give it to me.”

The bill was left pending on Tuesday in the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety. It would still need to pass the full House and Senate, and be signed by the governor, to become law.

The push for information about Santa Fe comes as advocates and Democratic lawmakers are pushing for a greater focus on gun control in the Legislature. Families from Santa Fe and Uvalde attended a news conference last week just after the Senate bill was pulled from the agenda.

Hart, who still made the trip after already having booked a hotel room in Austin and boarding her dogs for the night, called out Patrick specifically, saying her understanding was that he “did not like the verbiage in one of the passages of the bill.”

“So rather than submit a committee substitute or amendment, he decided to pull the bill,” Hart said. She then addressed Patrick directly, noting he had years to make changes.

“For five years you could have done something, and you didn’t,” she said, using an expletive.

Cayla Harris contributed reporting.

Tori Duff is a senior studying journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and the news editor of its student paper, The Daily Texan.