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By Richard Weizel
MILFORD, Connecticut (Reuters) - Police in Newtown, Connecticut, have been ordered to release 911 calls made from Sandy Hook Elementary School during last December's massacre of 20 first-graders and six educators by a lone gunman.
Even with the unanimous decision by the nine-member Connecticut Freedom of Information Commission on Wednesday, it is still uncertain when or whether the tapes will be released to numerous media outlets that have sought them since the December 14, 2012 tragedy, considered one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.
Danbury State's Attorney Stephen Sedensky III, who is leading the investigation into the shooting in which the gunman also killed himself, said Thursday his office will appeal the decision in Superior Court and seek an immediate stay to prevent the release of the audio tapes.
Although 911 calls are generally released, Sedensky has ordered Newtown police to withhold them, saying they are part of an ongoing criminal investigation.
"We believe there are legal issues that need to be addressed," Sedensky said on Thursday.
He has argued that release of the tapes could impact the ongoing investigation and may be hurtful to witnesses heard on the tapes, although he declined to elaborate.
"The commission made a decision that went against our position, so we're going to appeal and move for a stay," Sedensky said.
The commission ruled that even if there is an ongoing investigation of the shootings, that does not justify withholding the tapes under state law.
Mary Schwind, managing director and associate general counsel for the state's FOI Commission, said "the respondents have failed to prove to the commission that any exemption in the law would allow them to withhold (the 911 tapes) that are part of the record."
A Connecticut law passed earlier this year in response to Sandy Hook prohibits the release of photographs, film, video and other visual images showing a homicide victim if they can "reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy of the victim or the victim's surviving family members.''
However, parts of 911-call tapes can be made public, according to the bill.
"Thus, while the new law exempts from disclosure certain audio recordings of conversations, presumably between first responders, in which the conditions of victims of homicide are described in such recordings, it specifically does not shield from disclosure recordings of 911 calls from members of the public to law enforcement agencies," according to an FOI Commission hearing officer.
(Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Gunna Dickson)