Santa Fe families push for passage of evidence bill

SANTA FE – Family members of those killed and wounded during the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School continue fighting for the release of information about what exactly happened in May 2018. A proposed law would yield some of those answers, but a hearing on the bill was canceled at the last minute this week.

“We had written our speeches, planned hotel rooms, planned for elder care, planned for pet care and we were on the road,” said Rhonda Hart, whose daughter Kimberly Vaughan was killed.

Senate Bill 435 would allow family members of murder victims, and survivors of an incident where a murder was committed, to view pieces of evidence before a case goes to trial. Typically, that type of information is shielded from the public prior to trial to protect the integrity of an an ongoing investigation. The bill prohibits any type of recording or duplication of the material and allows district attorneys to require those viewing the information to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Since the charged gunman in the Santa Fe murders remains incompetent to stand trial, family members believe this bill is their best chance at getting answers. However, the night before the bill was to be heard before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, family members were told the hearing was canceled.

“There was at least a dozen people traveling to speak, not just Santa Fe. We got this all rolling and there’s a lot of people this affects that wanted to speak on it, victims of other crimes,” said Scot Rice, whose wife, Flo Rice, was critically wounded during the shooting.

Family members said they were told Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked to have the bill pulled from the hearing schedule so certain language could be revised. However, Rosie Stone, whose son Chris Stone was killed during the shooting, said Patrick assured her the bill would be heard in committee after changes were made.

“You had all that time to look at that bill, see what it said, if you didn’t like it, why didn’t you fix it then? Why did you wait until at the very last minute?” said Stone.

Stone, Hart and Rice said they still haven’t gotten specific answers as to what changes in the proposed law legislators want to make.

“Tell me where in the bill you were upset, point to this word right here, like I’m five,” said Hart.

The bill was filed by State Sen. Mayes Middleton, who has not yet responded to KPRC 2′s questions about revisions in the proposed law. This bill is unique in that, if passed, it would be applied retroactively.

“I am not allowed to know how my daughter died, because some man in an office says that I can’t, and that’s despicable,” said Hart in reference to not being allowed to see her daughter’s autopsy report.

If passed, the bill would allow family members to see their loved one’s autopsy reports and see video from inside the hallway of the school.

“I don’t know how it’s going to make me feel, but let me make that decision,” said Stone. “I truly believe that there is something somewhere that they just don’t want us to know. That’s all I can chalk this up to, because there’s no question who pulled the trigger.”

Even when the hearing in the Senate was canceled, several families persisted by knocking on doors in the House of Representatives to see if an identical “twin” bill filed in that chamber by State Rep. Greg Bonnen could move forward. Christina Delgado with the Community Justice Action Fund is helping the families get the bill heard.

“To give them this small piece of closure is the very least that we can do for these families so that they can move on,” said Delgado. “They have to sit and think how did it happen? How long did it take? Did they bleed out? Were they crying? Were they calling for me? Who held their hand?”

Hart, Stone and Rice all said they’ve become increasingly frustrated with a lack of answers regarding the criminal case.

“Why, in this particular case, do we never get any step forward, it’s always a step back. There’s always doors slammed in our face. What do they not want us to see, what do they not want to get out?” said Rice.

Late Thursday afternoon, the bill was scheduled for a hearing before the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. However, it is unclear what revisions have been made. KPRC 2 reached out to Bonnen’s office for an answer on this point but have not received a response.

We also reached out to Middleton and Patrick’s offices for comment, but neither has responded. Chair of the Senate Criminal Justice, State Sen. John Whitmire did respond to our questions. Whitmire said he supports the bill, and it would get a hearing before his committee after revisions were made to address concerns by some district attorneys. Whitmire was not specific in what concerns were raised and who raised these concerns. Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady has already publicly stated he supports the bill.

About the Author:

Award winning investigative journalist who joined KPRC 2 in July 2000. Husband and father of the Master of Disaster and Chaos Gremlin. “I don’t drink coffee to wake up, I wake up to drink coffee.”