AUSTIN (KXAN) — Three weeks shy of the one year anniversary of the Uvalde mass shooting, the Texas House has given initial approval of a bill to end the state’s so-called “dead suspect loophole” — the same law used to block the release of records in that case and many others.
KXAN has been investigating this issue for five years. On Thursday, the bill, HB 30, passed the House in a vote of 112-31 without debate. It was given final approval on Friday in a vote of 118-24. It now heads to the Senate.
This is the closest the loophole has ever come to an end.
Scot Rice watched Thursday’s vote from his home in Santa Fe, Texas. It was five years ago this month that his wife, Flo, was shot six times at the high school where she worked. She survived the mass shooting that killed 10 people.
“The families that lost a loved one have nothing,” said Rice, who still wants answers. “They don’t have any autopsy reports, no video.”
It’s hard enough for families to get answers when the suspect, in this case, is alive. But when a suspect dies, like in Uvalde, it can be almost impossible.
“Those people will never have the full story, it looks like,” he said. “And it’s just wrong.”
Rice supports the bill, which he said would help victims and their families find justice, accountability and answers.
The “dead suspect loophole” refers to an exemption in Texas’ public records law that gives police discretion to withhold information in criminal cases that haven’t gone through the court process — even when a suspect dies in police custody.
That’s what happened with 18-year-old Graham Dyer, who died in police custody in 2013. His family later learned from the FBI that he suffered a severe head injury after officers shocked him repeatedly with a Taser. Police withheld video and records from his family — because their son was under arrest when he died.
“You can’t tell a parent, ‘Well your child died so we don’t have to tell you what happened,'” said Dyer’s mother, Kathy, in a 2019 interview with KXAN. “That doesn’t make any sense at all.”
Dyer has been fighting for an end to the loophole and testified in front of lawmakers in April, again, in support of the bill.
“There’s no greater need for the people to know the truth then when an interaction with their government leaves one of them dead,” said Rep. Joe Moody, (D-El Paso), who filed the bill and has been pushing for years to close the loophole, which is blocking Uvalde families from getting answers.
“Their demands were always for answers, for the records and the videos,” Moody said. “And for the truth.”
As the one year anniversary of the Uvalde mass-shooting approaches, there’s still no resolution from the district attorney’s investigation, where calls for transparency have fallen flat.
The bill does allow exceptions for active investigations. If it were to become law, the records related to the Uvalde shooting would still be sealed as long as the district attorney’s investigation is ongoing.
The only reason Uvalde families have some answers is because Rep. Dustin Burrows, (R-Lubbock), as chairman of a special Texas House panel that investigated the Robb Elementary shooting, gave them the video showing police inaction, Moody said.
“Because he was willing to stand up and suffer whatever consequences came, they got many of the answers they were denied,” said Moody. “It shouldn’t take conscientious people willing to break the law to get the truth out there. The families, and the public, deserve to know what happened. All of it. Good, bad, and ugly,” Moody said.
Law enforcement has expressed concern that unrelated and unsubstantiated allegations against officers would be made public if the bill passes. Moody said that would not be the case.
The measure to end the loophole had strong support from House Speaker Dade Phelan, which likely helped push it through so easily. It may have a more challenging time in the Senate.
“Law enforcement refused to release those [Uvalde] records,” Moody said. “And, we all knew very well that they never had to release them, ever, because of the loophole this bill closes.”
“Secrets,” he added, “destroy trust.”