Victims and family members who lost loved ones and fellow parishioners in a November 2017 massacre at a church in rural Texas -- in which an Air Force veteran was responsible for one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history -- have reached a tentative $144.5 million settlement with the U.S. government.
The Department of Justice announced Wednesday that an "agreement in principle" has been reached to resolve the claims of 75 plaintiffs against the Air Force and U.S. goverment. A judgment issued in 2021 found the service 60% responsible for the events because it failed to report the gunman's criminal history to authorities, which would have stopped him from buying the firearm he used to gun down 26 people and injure 22 others at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs.
"No words or amount of money can diminish the immense tragedy of the mass shooting in Sutherland Springs," Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta said in a press release. "Today's announcement brings the litigation to a close, ending a painful chapter for the victims of this unthinkable crime."
Jamal Alsaffar, the lead trial attorney who represented the family members in the judgment against the Air Force, told Military.com in an emailed statement Wednesday that his clients have worked to make the nation safer as a result of their legal battles.
"The Sutherland Springs families are heroes," Alsaffar said in an email. "The country owes them a debt of gratitude. They have gone through so much pain and loss in the most horrific way. But despite that, these families fought for justice, endured and won two trials against the federal government, and made this country safer as a result."
The Air Force did not immediately respond to a Military.com email requesting comment on the settlement.
The U.S. government has been fighting the civil lawsuit tooth and nail since it was first brought by victims of family members of the shooting.
Last year, the Department of Justice filed an appeal in an attempt to overturn a ruling that ordered the federal government to pay victims and their families $230 million in compensation because the Air Force did not flag the shooter to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, based on his previous criminal history.
This past October, 37 groups penned a letter to the Justice Department urging it to abandon the legal challenge.
"The families of the 26 people who were killed and the 22 more who were wounded have spent almost five years fighting for justice, a process that has been retraumatizing, painful, and needlessly protracted," the October letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland says. It was signed by groups such as Brady United Against Gun Violence, March for Our Lives and Women Against Gun Violence.
"Please allow these victims to finally close this horrific chapter of their lives and move forward. Please make this country a safer place. Please withdraw your appeal. Please deliver justice," the letter continues.
The ruling against the military explained that the shooter, Devin Patrick Kelley, was not flagged in NICS after he made threats of violence to his Air Force superiors, assaulted his wife and child, attempted to smuggle firearms onto Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, and escaped from a behavioral health facility while awaiting court-martial in 2012. He received a bad conduct discharge from the service in 2014.
Kelley died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound following the Sutherland Springs attack.The Justice Department defended the NICS system in its press release and said it's still improving it.
"The NICS plays a critical role in combating gun violence, and the federal government is always striving to improve the functioning of that system," the agency said in Wednesday's press release. "The department continues to work actively to combat gun violence as part of its comprehensive violent crime reduction strategy."
The settlement announced Wednesday is not final, and a court must still approve the details.
"Attorney General Garland's office still must approve it, and we urge his Justice Department to act quickly to bring some closure to these families. It's the least they deserve," Alsaffar said.
-- Drew F. Lawrence and Konstantin Toropin contributed to this report
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.