Thursday, April 11

Vanessa Guillen’s family fighting to end ‘Dead Suspect Loophole’

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The family of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen is still fighting for answers — a fight made harder by Texas’ so-called “Dead Suspect Loophole.” It’s the same loophole transparency advocates worry could be used to block the release of records in Uvalde.

“It has been a long two years,” said Mayra Guillen, in an exclusive interview. “I’m very hesitant to accept what happened. For me, it’s like she’s still out there deployed somewhere and I’m waiting for that day when she’s going to come back home.”

In a room surrounded by photos and memories of her sister, what Mayra doesn’t have are answers.

“It’s been hard,” she said. “Many questions from beginning to end. No one can answer them or they refuse to answer them.”

Vanessa, a soldier at Fort Hood, was murdered in 2020. The suspect in her death died by suicide when approached by Killeen police. The family has asked to see the officer’s body camera video, in private, to see what, if anything, he might have said that could provide clues or closure.

KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant interviews Natalie Khawam (KXAN Photo/Richard Bowes)

The family’s attorney, Natalie Khawam, said the “Dead Suspect Loophole” was used to block the Guillen’s from obtaining evidence.

“We were informed that we were not going to be provided any of the bodycam video footage,” said Khawam. “Because [the suspect] was quote-un-quote ‘not a criminal.’”

Since 2018, KXAN has investigated this loophole to the Public Information Act. The loophole allows police to hold information in criminal cases that have not gone through the court process — even when a suspect dies in police custody. Transparency advocates worry this same loophole could be used to block the release of records in Uvalde that could shed light on law enforcement’s response.

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The Guillen’s attorney said victims’ families should have access to all case records — including body camera video.

“Those are property of the people,” Khawam said. “And all that footage is paid for by taxpayers. Taxpayers should have a right to something they paid for.”

“If we’re not going to provide the transparency why pay for them?” she asked. “If we’re not going to allow for accountability then why are taxpayers paying for something we can’t make use of?”

There is an ongoing criminal case related to Vanessa’s murder but Khawam said the “Dead Suspect Loophole” was used to block the release of records to the family.

KXAN investigative reporter Matt Grant interviews Mayra Guillen (KXAN Photo/Richard Bowes)

In response to Vanessa’s murder, Khawam and Mayra helped change state and federal law to better help military members who are victims of sexual assault and harassment. They now plan to meet, once again, with state lawmakers — this time hoping to end the “Dead Suspect Loophole.”

“I absolutely am interested in working on this legislation,” said Khawam. “I’m looking forward to working on fixing this terrible loophole.”

“If we have to work for other laws to be changed or implemented,” echoed Mayra, “then I’m here for it.”

Several lawmakers have spoken out in favor of closing the loophole next session. That incudes Republican Speaker of the House Dade Phelan and Democratic State Rep. Joe Moody, who was just appointed Vice-chair of the Investigative Committee on the Robb Elementary Shooting.

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