A judge on Monday cleared the way for the release of many of the hundreds of 911 calls related to a mass shooting at a gay Florida nightclub, but calls capturing patrons' deaths will still be exempt.
In dismissing a lawsuit by the city of Orlando, Circuit Judge Margaret Schreiber sided with more than two dozen media groups who sued for the recordings three months ago, immediately after the June 12 shooting at the Pulse club. Less than an hour after the lawsuit was filed, the city filed a complaint arguing that the records were exempt from the state's public records law, both because they were part of an investigation and because some of them depicted patrons being killed. Current state law prohibits the public release of any 911 calls that capture someone's death. Technically, the law will change on Oct. 1 to exempt only calls capturing the death of law enforcement officers. No officers died in the Pulse standoff.
"Our position certainly is that after Oct. 1 this exemption will no longer apply and all records should be released," said Rachel Fugate, an attorney for the media groups, which include The Associated Press.
The city contends, however, that the Oct. 1 change to the law should not be retroactive; therefore all calls capturing patrons' deaths would remain exempt, said Darryl Bloodworth, an attorney representing the city.
The judge will decide during a hearing on Friday which of the more than 600 calls would be exempt under the current law. She may also consider whether the change to the law in October can be applied retroactively.
In dismissing the city's lawsuit Monday, the judge said many of the concerns raised by the city can be addressed in the media group's complaint.
The media groups say the release of the calls would help the public evaluate the response of the police to the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
The hearings this week are only the latest in a three-month fight over the release of the 911 calls, as well as communications between the police and gunman Omar Mateen. Mateen opened fire at the Pulse nightclub on June 12. Forty-nine patrons were killed and another 53 people required hospitalization.
Mateen, who had pledged alliance to the Islamic State, was killed in a shootout with SWAT team members rescuing police officers after a three-hour standoff.
The city had said the recordings were exempt under Florida's public records law, and that the FBI insisted their release could disrupt the investigation. The U.S. Department of Justice tried to get the case moved to federal court but a federal judge said his court lacked jurisdiction and sent it back to state court.
In a surprise move, the FBI said earlier this month that withholding the records was no longer necessary.
The city has released only about 30 of the calls.