SANTA FE, Texas – After last-minute changes, a proposed law impacting the families of those killed during the Santa Fe High School mass shooting is moving forward. This bill involves giving family members of victims of certain crimes the chance to view evidence even if a case has not gone to trial.
Senate Bill 435 was filed by State Sen. Mayes Middleton and was unanimously voted out of the Criminal Justice Committee on Tuesday. However, last-minute revisions greatly narrowed the scope of who the proposed law would impact. Several families testified before the committee.
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“It’s not fair, and it’s inhumane to keep prolonging this trauma for me and the other families,” said Rhonda Hart, whose daughter, Kimberly Vaughan was murdered during the mass shooting at Santa Fe high school.
Families of those killed and wounded at Santa Fe High School said they are desperate for answers that remain out of reach. The case has not gone to trial because the charged gunman remains incompetent to stand trial. This means evidence, like autopsy reports and video of the police response, is being kept confidential.
“It’s heartbreaking, you have to live with the fact that you lost your child and then you have to live with the fact that, ‘I can’t tell you anything about it,’” said Rosie Stone, whose son, Chris Stone was killed during the May 2018 rampage.
Senate Bill 435 would allow families to see medical examiner reports and video evidence but prohibits any recording of the information. However, the measure only applies in cases where five or more people were killed and the defendant was found incompetent to stand trial. Galveston County District Attorney Jack Roady testified he supports the bill.
“While this legislative body cannot undo the tragedy and reasons for our sorrow, you can help reduce the trauma that plagues our hearts and souls,” said John Conard, Jared Black’s uncle.
When the bill was first filed, it applied to families of murder victims well beyond Santa Fe. Revisions were made to the bill as late as Monday night and those who traveled to Austin to testify found out about the changes at the last minute.
“The bill, as written, it excludes a lot of us,” said Jessika Gaehring, whose fiance Austin Utley was murdered. “Some murders get attention and others are forgotten. I am asking the committee to make sure they remember every single murder victim.”
Alison Steele’s daughter, Cayley Mandadi was killed in 2017 at Trinity University and the case ended in a mistrial. She questions whether the proposed law would violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution.
“On its face, you’ve written a bill that has very good intentions. It benefits a handful of families, however, by leaving thousands of other people in equivalent circumstances out in the cold,” Steele said.
Leticia Ybarra’s daughter, Jessica Perez, was murdered in 2020 and the case has yet to go to trial. She said she at first supported the proposed law, but testified she could not support the latest revisions.
“Last week it was my plan to attend these meetings in support of this, as a mother of a murdered child I would like answers too. Regrettably, I now oppose it,” said Ybarra.
Committee chair State Sen. John Whitmire and vice chair State Sen. Joan Huffman said they would work to address these concerns. Senate Bill 435 is scheduled for a vote in the Senate on Thursday. House Bill 3729 was authored by State Rep. Greg Bonnen and is a “twin” of Senate Bill 435.
Bonnen’s bill, which did not include the revisions made to SB 435, was heard last week before the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. The measure was left pending in committee. It is not yet known when the House will again take up the measure.
**Update** SB 435 was unanimously approved by the Senate on 4/20. The measure still has to pass the House before becoming law.
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