A federal judge on Monday acceded to a request from the Arizona Daily Star and lifted a court order that previously blocked the release of sheriff's records pertaining to the January 2011 mass shooting in Tucson.
It is now up to the Pima County Sheriff's Department to decide if and how it will respond to media requests for records.
The department has collected nearly 600 pages of reports pertaining to the case, said Deputy Tom Peine, spokesman for the department. It will take the department some time to review the reports, redact any information it deems necessary and decide on the best way to release the voluminous case file to the media, Peine said.
"We still do not have a full grasp of the magnitude of the project," he said.
In his decision, Judge Larry Burns left the door open for the Sheriff's Department and the defense team of admitted shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, to challenge the release of records in state court.
"Maybe they must be handed over, but maybe there is some enduring justification for keeping them from the public's view. That is for an Arizona court to decide, if it comes to that," Burns wrote in his decision.
"I'm sure legal will have to take that into account" before releasing records, Peine said of the department's legal counsel.
The Star filed a motion in U.S. District Court on Feb. 15 to vacate a protective order preventing the Pima County Sheriff's Department from releasing materials related to the investigation of the shooting.
"The Star's interest in these records is to see if they offer detail that adds to the national discussion about crimes involving guns and mental illness," said Editor Bobbie Jo Buel.
The order was put in place in March 2011 to protect Loughner's right to a fair trial. However, Loughner has since pleaded guilty to 19 federal charges and in November was sentenced to seven consecutive life sentences, plus 140 years, for the shooting spree that killed six people and injured a dozen others, including former U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Loughner, 24, currently is housed in a federal prison medical facility in Springfield, Mo., where he has been treated for schizophrenia.
Last week, in response to the Star's motion to vacate the protective order, Loughner's defense team raised "privacy interests of the witnesses, and victims, including the defendant's family" in a failed argument to keep the records from being released.
Loughner's attorneys also emphasized the "need to protect defendants prosecuted for such sensational crimes from harm or potential public backlash. Such concerns do not end with a conviction; instead, they carry on throughout the defendant's incarceration," they wrote.
Prosecutors did not object to releasing the information.
Contact reporter Kimberly Matas at email@example.com or at 573-4191.