AUSTIN (KXAN) — A years-long fight to close a controversial legal gap known as the “dead suspect loophole” has nearly come to an end. This development comes days after the one-year anniversary of the Uvalde mass shooting that killed 19 children and two teachers, which put a spotlight on the importance of public records, transparency and the truth.
“This work can mean policy, and this work can mean people. Closing the dead suspects loophole was about both,” Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who fought to close the loophole for the fourth session in a row, tweeted after the Senate vote. “I worked this for six years, but Uvalde elevated the issue for the last one, and I’m so proud to finally deliver a path to the answers the people deserve.”
After some back-and-forth disagreements, on the last full day of the legislative session, the House and Senate hammered out a last-minute compromise on HB 30, which Moody introduced. With both chambers approving the measure, it is now in the final stages before reaching Gov. Greg Abbott. He can sign, veto or let it become law without his signature. Before that, it must be signed by the speaker and lieutenant governor – certification required by the Texas Constitution. Once all of that is complete, the new law would take effect Sept. 1.
At issue was the “dead suspect loophole,” an exemption in the Texas Public Information Act that gives police discretion to withhold records from the public in cases where a suspect doesn’t go through the court process. It has been used to block records from being released in cases where a suspect dies in police custody — the focus of a six-year KXAN investigation.
Problems caused by the ‘dead suspect loophole’
The public records loophole rose to prominence – again – last year when Uvalde officials used it to block the release of records and video that would have shed light on law enforcement’s response to the Robb Elementary School shooting. Since the gunman died, there was no obligation to release records related to the incident which would have shed light on the widely-criticized response.
Following the mass shooting, House Speaker Dade Phelan tweeted it was time to “end the dead suspect loophole for good in 2023” after saying it would be “unconscionable” for it to be used to block families from getting answers.
“The issue with it became extremely pronounced during that investigation,” Moody previously said. “Because what we needed were facts. We needed the documentation. We needed the videos. We needed to know what happened.”
The conflicting information surrounding what happened in Uvalde helped give the bill momentum this legislative session. It is currently one of the only measures related to Uvalde still able to move forward as the legislative session comes to a close — others stalled or missed key deadlines. Moody said the families deserve to know what happened — “all of it, good, bad and ugly.”
“Uvalde underscores how crucial this is: The [hallway] video you’ve all seen of that incident,” Moody said during an April hearing, “is only out there because (House Investigative Committee on the Robb Elementary School Shooting) Chairman (Dustin) Burrows took the courageous step of announcing that he intended to release the video, in violation of the law, to get the truth out. If he hadn’t, it would still be secret today — even for the families whose children never came home that day.”
For the family of Graham Dyer, this is long overdue. In 2013, the 18-year-old died in police custody. His parents fought to get records and video of the incident but were denied at every turn because their son was under arrest when he died and, therefore, hadn’t gone through the court process.
The family later learned through a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI, which wasn’t subject to Texas law, that their son suffered a severe head injury after officers shocked him repeatedly with a Taser.
“We are surprised, very pleased, and extremely grateful to Representative Moody, Speaker Phelan, Senator King and all of the legislators who supported the bill – and hopeful that Governor Abbott will sign it into law,” Kathy said.
“This is just the most amazing news!!!!,” Robert emailed KXAN upon passage. “I don’t know where we would be if it were not for you steadfastly reporting on this and, most importantly on a personal level, keeping us informed of the developments.”