Santa Fe families testify in Austin on evidence bill

Family members of murder victims testified Tuesday before a Texas House committee on a bill that would allow them to view certain pieces of evidence prior to trial.

The hearing was held before the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee.

SEE ALSO: Santa Fe families push for passage of evidence bill

“I do believe that my voice was finally heard. I just think that it’s time that somebody did something for the victims’ families. We’ve been slapped in the face so many times. This is just a small piece in the direction that we need to start some kind of healing process,” said Rosie Stone, mother of Chris Stone who was murdered during the Santa Fe mass shooting.

House Bill 3729 was authored by State Rep. Greg Bonnen and is a “twin” of Senate Bill 435 filed by State Sen. Mayes Middleton.

The proposed law would allow family members of murdered victims to view evidence like autopsy reports and body camera video prior to a case going to trial. Typically, that information is not shared with the public to protect the integrity of an ongoing criminal investigation.

SEE ALSO: Judge accused of bias in Santa Fe High School shooter case

“I feel our testimonies were very compelling. There’s nothing really that strikes the chord other than a grieving parent, and I’m really grateful that these ladies came up, and we all did it together,” said Rhonda Hart, whose daughter Kimberly Vaughan was killed during the Santa Fe mass shooting.

The push for the change in the law stems from the 2018 mass shooting at Santa Fe High School when eight students and two educators were murdered. The case has yet to go to trial because the charged gunman was declared incompetent. He remains in a state hospital where doctors continue to work to restore his competency.

SEE ALSO: Santa Fe gunman remains incompetent to stand trial, Galveston County DA’s office says

Without the case going to trial, family members say there is no resolution to lingering questions about whether their loved ones suffered and a better accounting of the police response. While the impetus for this measure is the Santa Fe shooting, the potential impact goes well beyond that case.

“It has been difficult, if not heartbreaking to give families answers to these questions,” Kevin Petroff with the Galveston County District Attorney’s Office said to committee members.

Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady has publicly stated he supports the measure.

Both bills are unique in that, if passed, would be applied retroactively. The bill prohibits any recording or duplication of any evidence viewed by family members and district attorneys would be allowed to require non-disclosure agreements.

SEE ALSO: Santa Fe families fight for answers, new law nearly 5 years after mass shooting

Jessica Gaehring, whose fiance Austin Utley was murdered, testified before the committee on behalf of a Houston family fighting to get the autopsy report of a loved one who was murdered in 2021.

“These families are going through this process every night, of going through their loved one’s last moments, did they suffer, were they aware and you can’t help it,” said Gaehring.

Bonnen’s bill was left pending before the committee as lawmakers await a hearing in the Senate. Middleton was the first to file this bill and a hearing before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee was scheduled for last week, but was canceled at the last minute.

Committee Chair State Sen. John Whitmire said Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick asked for the bill to pulled from the schedule so it could be revised to address concerns over some of the language. Whitmire was not specific in what those concerns entail. Family members tell KPRC 2 they have not gotten answers as to what concerns have been raised, but say they’ve been told the bill is being revised and will have a hearing in the Senate soon. The bill presented to the House committee has not been revised.

Allison Steele’s daughter, Cayley Mandadi was killed in 2017 at Trinity University and the case ended in a mistrial. Steele testified before the House committee, saying seeing evidence prior to trial would also help families mentally prepare for the details to be made public. Steele also said no detractors signed up to speak before the House committee.

“Nobody stepped forward today to oppose the bill. We heard rumors with the Senate hearing being pulled suddenly, at the last minute when we were all on the road to testify, maybe somebody would show today and say, ‘no, maybe we should change the bill this way or that way’ and there’s no opposition at this point,” said Steele.

Steele was instrumental in getting the Texas Department of Public Safety to implement the CLEAR Alert. The Coordinated Law Enforcement Adult Rescue Alert is similar to an Amber Alert, but applies to adults who may have been kidnapped or who are missing and in immediate danger.

It is not yet known when SB 435 will be scheduled for a hearing or what revisions have been made to the language. KPRC reached to Middleton’s and Patrick’s offices but did not receive a response.

As for the criminal case against the charged Santa Fe gunman, there will be a hearing next week on defense attorney motions to have the judge either recused or disqualified.

Click here to read more about that part of the case.

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.”