VIEWPOINTS: Releasing bomber’s recording would help heal a wounded city

We urge the Austin Police Department to release the recorded confession Mark A. Conditt left behind. The public’s right to hear the 28-minute audio recording of the bomber who terrorized the city for much of March far outweighs reasons for keeping it secret.

We do understand temporarily withholding some information to protect the integrity of an ongoing investigation, as Texas law permits. But the primary objection of law enforcement goes to another issue: That releasing it might inspire copycats or glorify a bomber who killed without regrets.

Under that reasoning, the recording would be hidden from the public. Forever.

“My concerns about this recording is that he (Conditt) does give indications of mistakes he made that led to our ability to identify and find him,” interim Austin Police Chief Brian Manley told us.

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“I just think it would educate someone in the future who might be doing this. We know that sometimes — whether they be a school shooter or a bomber – these things live in perpetuity on the internet and people remember who you were and that might be giving (shooters or bombers) what they wanted by giving them that amount of attention.”

Point taken. But as we noted to Manley, the public needs more than words on that claim: Austin needs evidence that releasing the video could lead to copycat cases.

Without that, the balance tips strongly in favor of the public. We are encouraged that Mayor Steve Adler has weighed in on the side of transparency.

“It’s basically the police chief’s call, but I would like to see that recording released,” Adler told us, saying he doesn’t know if it should be released in its original form or through a transcript, noting that in plane crashes transcripts of cockpit conversations sometimes are released instead of actual audio recordings.

Adler continued: “There are questions and concerns in the community — did he talk about the victims, about a political agenda, about targeting people. We were told ‘no.’ If that is the case, the community should be able to hear that.”

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Adler has rightly sized up Austin’s intense need to know the facts through Conditt’s own words without the filter of law enforcement. If there is a danger of inspiring a copycat, it must be balanced against the heinous acts Conditt committed. That is an open wound not likely to heal anytime soon – if ever — without information.

The American-Statesman reported last week that officials released a federal affidavit filed against Conditt that provided insight into law enforcement’s frantic effort to find the bomber. But Manley indicated that the audio recording – among a massive trove of evidence collected by law enforcement over a five-week investigation – will be kept secret as officials continue their work. He emphasized that a final determination to release the audio recording would hinge on weighing public interest against public safety concerns.

Sixty parties, including the American-Statesman, have made records requests for the audio confession and other documents. All can be permanently hidden from the public, as the American-Statesman’s Tony Plohetski recently reported. Texas law allows police to keep evidence, including case files, hidden in cases that don’t result in a suspect’s conviction either through a plea agreement or trial — neither of which is possible for Conditt, who authorities say took his own life by exploding a bomb in his vehicle as police closed in to arrest him.

Certainly, hearing Conditt’s voice could be disturbing or painful. But the details in his confession are key in understanding what happened to Austin during his reign of terror. The attacks have raised questions about whether Conditt targeted his victims because of their race or ethnicity or his own political or personal agenda.

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Among those who died from package bombs Conditt left on doorsteps are Anthony Stephan House, a loving father from a prominent African-American family. He was the first victim, killed after he handled the package outside his home on March 2.

On March 12, two more bombs exploded. One killed another member of Austin’s African-American community, 17-year-old musician Draylen Mason, whose mother also was injured in the explosion. The second bomb critically injured Esperanza Herrera, a beloved mother and grandmother. Up to that point, the package bombs targeted East Austin.

Changing his tactics, Conditt set up an explosive on a sidewalk in a West Austin neighborhood that exploded and injured Colton Mathes and Will Grote, who are white. On March 20, two more devices were found: one that exploded at a FedEx facility in Schertz, and another at a FedEx facility in Southeast Austin, which bomb technicians rendered safe. 

All we know now regarding Conditt’s confession are descriptions by unnamed sources, who told the Statesman that Conditt says on the recording, “I wish I were sorry, but I am not.” He also calls himself a “psychopath” and threatens to blow himself up at a crowded McDonald’s to avoid capture.

That is not enough. The lack of information only worsens a void that too often is filled with speculation and falsehoods when facts aren’t available. With Austin’s healing on the line, we hope Manley leans in favor of transparency.

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