ORLANDO, Fla. – The U.S. Department of Justice has dropped its legal case against the release of 911 calls from the massacre at a gay nightclub in Florida, saying Wednesday that sealing the recordings is no longer necessary to the federal investigation.
The reversal by federal prosecutors sends the freedom of information fight back to state court.
About two dozen media groups, including The Associated Press, have asked the city of Orlando and the Justice Department to release the recordings of the 911 calls and other calls gunman Omar Mateen had with Orlando Police after opening fire at the Pulse nightclub last June. His hours-long rampage killed 49 people and wounded 53 before he was killed in a shootout with a SWAT team rescuing his hostages.
The U.S. Attorney's Office and the FBI are now dropping their request that the city of Orlando withhold releasing the 911 calls, said William Daniels, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.
"The Federal Bureau of Investigation has determined that the specific records at issue are no longer part of its active and ongoing criminal investigations into the shootings at Pulse nightclub," Daniels said in an email.
Cassandra Lafser, a spokeswoman for the city, said she had no immediate response.
The media groups have said releasing the recordings could help the public evaluate the police response to the worst mass shooting in recent U.S. history. The city countered that the recordings were exempt under Florida's public records law, and that the FBI was insisting that their release could disrupt the criminal investigation.
The Department of Justice had pushed to have the legal fight moved to federal court, where Florida's public records law wouldn't apply, but a federal judge sent the case back to state court. That's where two hearings have been scheduled for later this month.
"We're gratified to see that the FBI is no longer presenting impediments to the release of the 911 recordings," said Rachel Fugate, an attorney for the media groups. "But it's taken three months, a lawsuit, a trip to federal court and a return to state court to get there."