Evidence bill headed to Gov. Abbott’s desk week before 5th anniversary of mass shooting

AUSTIN, TX – MAY 27: The Texas State Capitol building, located on 1100 Congress Avenue in Austin, Texas, was constructed between 1882-1888. The building was recognized as an American National Historic Landmark in 1986. (Photo by Ross Lewis/Getty Images) (Ross Lewis, 2018 Getty Images)

One week before the fifth anniversary of the Santa Fe High School mass shooting, relatives of those killed and wounded are celebrating a hard-fought victory at the state capitol. A bill that will allow family members of crime victims to see certain pieces of evidence prior to trial is headed to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk for his signature. We’ve been following the developments of this bill passage for months.

Families would be allowed to see certain evidence prior to trial

Senate Bill 435 was first filed by State Sen. Mayes Middleton and would allow prosecutors to share certain pieces of evidence, like autopsy reports and video, with family members of murder victims even if the case has not gone to trial. Victims who survived a crime involving a murder are also allowed to see this information. Typically such evidence is kept confidential prior to trial.

The bill gives prosecutors the discretion to require those viewing the evidence to sign confidentiality agreements and prohibits any recording or duplication of the material. Many family members of those killed or wounded during the Santa Fe mass shooting have been pushing for the passage of this bill since the case has not gone to trial. The charged gunman, Dimitrios Pagourtzis, was declared incompetent to stand trial in 2019 and doctors at North Texas State Hospital have not yet been able to restore his competency. Until his competency is restored the case remains stalled.

“It’s a week before our five-year landmark and it feels great to know that we accomplished something in this case. We moved the needle forward. A mass shooting was acknowledged, and lawmakers paid attention to survivors for the first time in a long time,” wrote Rhonda Hart, whose daughter Kimberly Vaughan was murdered during the shooting.

Similar bill also up for debate in Austin

Family members worried this day would not come given the route this bill followed through the legislature. The bill was first scheduled to be heard by the Senate Criminal Justice committee. That hearing was cancelled at the last minute with family members given only the vague reason of concerns over the bill’s language. A “twin” of SB 435 was filed in the House by State Rep. Greg Bonnen.

Bonnen took the bill to the House Homeland Security and Public Safety committee. The Senate then held its committee hearing, but at the 11th hour greatly narrowed the scope. The Senate’s bill was amended to essentially only include families of Santa Fe victims. Family of members of other murder victims then protested the amended bill created “different classes of victims.”

After passing a vote in the Senate, Bonnen’s bill was then was passed out of committee and passed a full vote in the House. However, Bonnen’s bill contained the original, more inclusive language. Since the House and Senate passed different versions of the bill it appeared the measure was headed for a conference committee to hash out final wording. On Thursday the Senate concurred with the House’s version so the bill could move forward for Abbott’s signature.

“What a relief that it went back to its original wording. We worked very hard on this and it shows determination wins, everybody wins. We get some kind of victims rights back that should have never been taken away to begin with. But here we are in a big victory for victims families. My heart has been needing some kind of temporary relief and this did it. Nothing but happy tears,” wrote Rosie Stone, whose son Chris Stone was murdered during the Santa Fe mass shooting.

Scot Rice’s wife, Flo, was shot several times in the legs during the Santa Fe shooting and survived. Scot Rice said he wants to see police officers’ body cam video to mentally prepare himself for when that video may be aired in open court and to get a clearer picture of what happened the day of the murders.

“After four long years working with our representatives and senators, we are elated for the news today that SB 435 is headed to the governor’s desk after a rocky road and lot of up and down moments. Getting a bill written and through the system is not an easy task or for the faint of heart. I want to thank Senator Mayes Middleton and Representative Greg Bonnen for their perseverance and personal care they have given to the Santa Fe families,” Scot Rice wrote in a statement to KPRC 2.

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.”