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UVa had 'urgent' meeting with commonwealth's attorney before withholding shooting report

Days before the University of Virginia announced its controversial decision to withhold an independent review of the deadly 2022 mass shooting on Grounds, UVa’s police chief sent an urgent email to the Albemarle County commonwealth’s attorney.

“I apologize for the last minute and fairly urgent request,” Police Chief Tim Longo wrote to Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley.

It was the second time Longo had messaged Hingeley in less than 30 minutes.

“Can JJ Davis and I have about 15-20 minutes of your time today between 2 and 3?” Longo wrote in an earlier text message, referring to J.J. Davis, the school’s chief operating officer. “Fairly urgent and at President Ryan’s respectful request,” he wrote, referring to the school’s President Jim Ryan.

The messages sent on Nov. 14 of last year were obtained by The Daily Progress via a Freedom of Information Act request.

Hingeley responded via text message two hours later, agreeing to the conference. The parties decided to meet at O’Neil Hall, which houses multiple administrative offices for the university, at 2:30 p.m., and Longo provided the commonwealth’s attorney with specific directions and parking instructions.

It is not clear what the three parties discussed or why Longo wanted the meeting. But three days later, UVa released a statement saying it would further delay the long-awaited release of the report — and that it was doing so with Hingeley’s blessing.

Hingeley is prosecuting the criminal case against Christopher Jones Jr., the former UVa student accused of opening fire on a busload of sleeping classmates coming back from a field trip in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 13, 2022, killing three and wounding two. Hingeley was referenced and quoted multiple times in UVa’s statement.

“After conferring with counselors and Albemarle County Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Hingeley, we have decided that we need to wait until after the criminal proceedings to release further information,” Ryan said in the Nov. 17 statement.

Prior to that announcement, UVa had said it had every intention of releasing the report, first to university officials, then victims’ families, then the public. But at some point between receiving the report last October and making the announcement in November, university leaders had a change of heart. They determined that releasing the report before Jones’ was tried in court would somehow affect his right to a fair trial.

“I am grateful to President Ryan, Rector [Robert] Hardie, and their teams for their consideration as we continue to prosecute this important case,” Hingeley is quoted in the official university statement.

Hingeley’s quoted statement made clear he had not actually seen the report himself.

“With that being said, I appreciate the University’s efforts to avoid taking any action that could complicate the prosecution of the accused, Christopher Jones, or impair his right to a fair and impartial trial,” Hingeley is quoted.

The statement raised questions about how UVa had reached the decision to keep the report out of the public eye. Was it Hingeley who first approached UVa? Or had the university approached Hingeley?

“I’m really not going to be able to comment on this, because it is in relation to an ongoing matter that is obviously one that’s attracted a lot of media attention,” Hingeley told The Daily Progress when asked last November. “I’m not going to be making any out-of-court statements at this time.”

But the correspondence between Long and Hingeley shed some light at the very least on when and who made the decision, as well as how the official statement was crafted.

One day after Hingeley appears to have met with Longo and Davis, he received another text message.

“Would you have time for me to read you the draft release?” Longo asked him.

Two days later, UVa published its release.

For legal analyst Scott Goodman, that chronology indicates it was UVa who initiated a conversation about withholding the report.

“It does confirm the suspicion that many people had, that the University of Virginia was the driver behind keeping the report secret, rather than Mr. Hingeley,” Goodman told The Daily Progress. “I think from the from the emails and the text messages and the sequence of events, it’s very clear that the university wanted to keep it secret. And they reached out to Mr. Hingeley to see if they could use him to accomplish what it is that they really wanted to do.”

The Daily Progress reached out to Longo regarding the back-and-forth with Hingeley, but he declined to answer any questions.

UVa spokeswoman Bethanie Glover offered a statement: “The University has no comment about this ongoing criminal investigation. We defer to the Commonwealth’s Attorney on specific questions regarding this criminal proceeding.”

Hingeley also declined to comment.

UVa’s decision to withhold the report is “disappointing,” according to John Fishwick, former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Virginia. He said he believes it’s the responsibility of the lawyers and judge in the courtroom to ensure Jones gets a fair trial, not UVa.

“It appears there was an effort not to release the report, and the most important people should’ve been consulted first,” Fishwick told The Daily Progress. He said, it should be the university’s top priority to inform the victims’ families and the public what happened before, during and after the gunfire that took the lives of three students, injured two others and placed the university and surrounding city of Charlottesville on lockdown while a manhunt ensued.

“Is there something in the report they’re concerned about the public knowing about?” he said. “I don’t know if that’s the case or not, but why wouldn’t the university want it released?”

Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government, was not surprised to learn that Hingeley and UVa had been in communication before the announcement.

“I just always assumed these conversations were taking place,” Rhyne told The Daily Progress. “Whoever made the decision and however the decision was made, I still think it was the wrong decision.”

Goodman spoke highly of Hingeley, saying he believes the commonwealth’s attorney was acting in good faith. He also pointed out that it’s unclear how much university officials revealed to Hingeley about what is in the report.

“I’m sure Mr. Hingeley doesn’t want the university to keep secret any more than is necessary to protect the defendant’s right to a fair trial,” Goodman said. “Hingeley has always been about open government and transparency.”

He takes issue with UVa’s decision to withhold the report in its entirety, arguing that there are likely many things in the report that would have no effect on the trial, which isn’t slated to start until January of next year. That’s particularly true of any examination of UVa’s operational procedures, such as how they handle reports of firearms on Grounds or threats reported by classmates.

“There’s no justification for keeping matters like that secret, even with the pending trial,” Goodman said.

He believes university officials must have read the report and determined releasing it would give UVa a “black eye.”

“It sounds like they discussed many ways that they could justify keeping the report secret,” Goodman said. “One of the things that must have come up in their meeting amongst themselves is, ‘Hey, let’s call the commonwealth’s attorney of Albemarle County, because we know they have this trial coming up. And perhaps we could suggest that one of the reasons to keep it secret is because of the upcoming trial.’”

Advocates for the report’s release argue that it could contain important information that could help prevent a similar tragedy from occurring at Uva or another school.

It’s not clear why Ryan did not reach out to Hingeley directly in November. The two had been in communication the month prior, when Hingeley alerted the UVa president via email that the docket call to set Jones’ trial date had been moved from Dec. 4 to Feb. 5.

Regardless, Longo’s “fairly urgent” message at Ryan’s “respectful request” got the commonwealth’s attorney’s attention.

“The University of Virginia is a power player in Charlottesville and the whole commonwealth, so I’m sure when they want to have a meeting, they can have it,” Fishwick said.

Source: www.dailyprogress.com

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