by James A. Bacon
A week ago The Jefferson Council publicly questioned the decision to withhold publication of the investigation into the University’s failure to prevent the Nov. 13, 2022, mass shooting. We were particularly perplexed by who made the decision to delay release of the report until after the trial of the defendant, Christopher Jones. The decision, announced by Rector Robert D. Hardie and President Jim Ryan, apparently was made without the approval of the Board of Visitors. (See “Will the Public Ever Get to See the Mass Shooting Report?”)
Now, as reported by The Daily Progress, others are asking questions.
The Daily Progress leads with the question, “Who exactly is the University of Virginia protecting?”
The newspaper quotes John Fishwick, former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia: “Whenever you have a public university with such a tragic event, it’s important for the public to know what happened. I think they should release it immediately.”
“Are they hiding something? I don’t know,” Michael Haggard, an attorney for the families of the victims, told The Daily Progress. “But I know one way you can stop the speculation on it: Release it to the families like you promised.”
The University’s story has changed over time.
“We were told it’s going to be released to the university first and then the university will release it to the families before they go public,” Haggard said.
Attorney General Jason Miyares, who outsourced the inquiry to the Quinn Immanuel law firm, sent the final report to UVa on Oct. 20. Then, reports The Daily Progress:
Instead of making it public, UVa said it would not release the report until early November, claiming it was “reviewing the report to ensure factual accuracy.”
But midway through the month, the university pivoted, announcing it would hold the report until after the conclusion of Jones’ criminal trial, which could take years….
Previously, UVa denied a public-records request from The Daily Progress. It argued the report was exempt under the Freedom of Information Act due to “attorney-client privilege” and because the report contains “scholastic records” and “operational plans or protocols.”
Fishwick said UVa is “hiding” behind FOIA laws and he sees little merit to the university’s newest argument.
Megan Rhyne, executive director for the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, told the newspaper she did not believe the criminal trial is a valid excuse. “I have never seen this reason be given before. Never. Who are they all trying to protect?”
The focus of the report has nothing to do with the trial, Rhyne told the newspaper. “The criminal prosecution of Christopher Jones doesn’t depend on whether or not UVa responded properly after the shooting or if UVa knew something about his mental state ahead of time.”
“It’s hard to believe that not a single bit of the report can be released and every bit of it could possibly affect the defendant’s right to a fair trial. It’s hard to swallow,” Goodman said. “It seems to me it could be released. It’s not going to affect the trial.”
We repeat what Jefferson Council President Tom Neale said in our first reporting of the delay: “What assurance do we have that the actions the University has taken to improve safety actually address the problems identified in the report? How do we know a similar breakdown won’t occur again?”
James A. Bacon is executive director of The Jefferson Council.