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Texas Church Shooting

Sutherland Springs survivors offer to accept reduced damages to end the DOJ appeal in a letter to the AG

The government was found liable in court and ordered to pay the victims $230 million. The victims aim "to put this behind us and get to healing" and sent the letter after the DOJ appealed earlier this month.
Kenneth and Irene Hernandez pay their respects as they visit a makeshift memorial with crosses placed near the scene of a shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A man opened fire inside the church in the small South Texas community on Sunday, killing and wounding many. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Kenneth and Irene Hernandez pay their respects at a makeshift memorial near the scene of a mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, in Sutherland Springs, Texas, on Nov. 6, 2017.Eric Gay / AP file

The survivors and families of those killed in a 2017 church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, sent a letter Thursday pleading for Attorney General Merrick Garland to intercede and ensure the Department of Justice will “end its appeal” of their case that found the federal government partially at fault for the deadly attack.

In the letter, the survivors said that the Justice Department’s appeal would undermine background check laws, force victims to relive the traumatic attack and delay justice.

“We are still waiting for our justice, even though we won the trial and the Government keeps delaying and trying to divide us,” the letter says. “Seven of us passed away waiting since our case began. And it seems like your plan is to appeal and wait for others to die or give up.”

To bring about the end of the appeal, the survivors offered in their letter to Garland to accept a reduction in the amount they were awarded by 10% or 15%, as they “just want to put this behind us and get to healing.”

One of the victims, Juan “Gunny” Macias, was filmed reading the letter aloud inside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, which is now a memorial to the victims who died. 

The government was found 60% liable in a previous trial that concluded in July 2021 after the Air Force failed to report information that could have caused the shooter, former service member Devin Kelley, to fail a background check when purchasing a weapon. The court said Kelley was 40% liable, resulting in the victims, more than 80 people, being awarded $230 million in a later judgment. 

The Justice Department appealed the case earlier this month, arguing in its brief that the government could not have known Kelley intended to pursue the attack and a failed background check would not have kept him from carrying out the mass shooting in the church.

The survivors and victims previously told NBC News that they feared the Justice Department’s argument would damage the integrity of the background check system. The National Rifle Association appeared to agree but applauded the agency’s arguments earlier this month. The gun rights group has regularly claimed that the background check system burdens “the exercise of Second Amendment rights by law-abiding people” and could lead to universal gun registration and eventual confiscation.

FILE - In this Nov. 12, 2017, file photo, a man walks out of the memorial for the victims of a shooting at Sutherland Springs First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. A South Texas church where a gunman in 2017 opened fire and killed more than two dozen congregants will unveil a new sanctuary and memorial room honoring the victims. Worshippers and relatives of those killed or injured at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs are expected to gather at the newly constructed church on Sunday, May 19, 2019. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)
A man walks out of a memorial service for the victims of the mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, on Nov. 12, 2017.Eric Gay / AP file

The Sutherland Springs shooting survivors pointed out that the Justice Department’s arguments seem to undermine the very gun safety laws President Joe Biden has fought for in his administration.

In the letter, they wrote that during their trial “the Government argued that the background check that was supposed to keep the shooter from getting guns didn’t matter. We don’t understand that. President Biden says that background checks work. We agree with that.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment. It has previously emphasized Biden’s commitment to gun safety when asked about the case and directed questions to the Justice Department, which the administration said continued to operate independently. 

The Justice Department confirmed that it had received the letter Thursday. 

Agency spokesperson Dena Iverson called the attack “an inexpressible tragedy” in a previously shared statement. She said that the Justice Department was not attempting “to excuse the Air Force’s failure” through its appeal. 

“Nonetheless, under settled Texas and federal law, the United States is not liable for Kelley’s actions, and is certainly not more responsible for those acts than the murderer himself,” she said. 

In this Nov. 10, 2017, file photo, family and friends gather around a makeshift memorial for the victims of the First Baptist Church shooting at Sutherland Springs Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas. The machete attack on a rabbi's home in Monsey, New York, during Hanukkah and the shooting of worshippers at a Texas church are refocusing attention on how vulnerable worshippers are during religious services. FBI hate crime statistics show there is reason for concern.
Mourners gather around a makeshift memorial for the victims of the mass shooting at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs, on Nov. 10, 2017.Eric Gay / AP file

The government has previously been found liable for mass shootings. It paid damages to the victims of the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida, as well as to the victims of the 2015 shooting at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

The Sutherland Springs survivors said in their letter that they were “grateful” the government paid the damages in those cases “without making those families relive their horrors in a trial,” and noted that the families involved were saved from having to face an appeal.

“As Americans we are grateful that you gave justice to those victims. They suffered the same horrors we did, and it was right to settle their cases,” the letter said. “But the Government settled for much more per person in those cases than our Judge ordered for each of us in our case. Why? Why can’t anyone explain why we are being treated differently?”

The families noted when a Justice Department spokesperson previously said “We remain open to resolving the plaintiffs’ claims through settlement and will continue our efforts to do so” after the agency filed the appeal, Jamal Alsaffar, an attorney for the victims, explained.

“This is the families’ attempt at seeing if the DOJ means what they say,” he said, adding that they believed it was important that Garland hear directly from the victims. 

Ultimately, those who signed the letter said they were motivated to proceed with it because they wanted to move on with their lives. Many are unable to do so, however, until they reach some kind of settlement with the government. 

“We want our children who need expensive medical care to get it,” the letter said. “We want our elderly family members to see this case resolved before they die. And we want our survivors who suffer daily with horrible disabilities and mental health problems to get the treatment they need and deserve.”