DOJ reaches $144.5 million tentative settlement with Sutherland Springs mass shooting victims

Twenty-six were killed in the 2017 shooting at a small, rural church.

April 5, 2023, 1:25 PM

Victims of the 2017 mass shooting at a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church have reached a tentative agreement with the Justice Department to settle their yearslong legal battle with the government for $144.5 million, according to an attorney for the victims and the Justice Department.

Twenty-six were killed and 22 were injured in the Nov. 5, 2017, massacre at the small, rural First Baptist Church.

The Sutherland Springs families "have gone through so much pain and loss in the most horrific way," trial attorney Jamal Alsaffar said in a statement to ABC News. "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 agreement is "not final," Alsaffar said, and will require final signoff from Attorney General Merrick Garland, but if approved, it would bring to a close a complex and uncomfortable process for the DOJ as it sought to appeal a judge's ruling that found the government largely responsible for the shooting.

In this Nov. 6, 2017 file photo law enforcement officials continue their investigation at First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs Texas.
Scott Olson/Getty Images, FILE

In July 2021, a judge ruled that the U.S. Air Force was 60% responsible for the church shooting because it failed to alert the FBI that the shooter, Devin Kelley, was previously investigated and court martialed for assaulting his then-wife and her stepson on an Air Force base, which would have flagged him as barred from purchasing a weapon under the NICS background check system.

The DOJ's appeal of the ruling was roundly criticized by gun control advocates and survivors of the attack who accused the Biden administration of undermining its own positions on the importance of the national background checks system.

District judge Xavier Rodriguez had ordered the government to pay victims more than $230 million in damages, saying that evidence presented at trial "conclusively established that no other individual -- not even Kelley’s own parents or partners -- knew as much as the United States about the violence that Devin Kelley had threatened to commit and was capable of committing."

After the government expressed its intent to appeal, many of the survivors, still struggling with expensive medical care to treat the injuries they suffered, spoke out in excruciating detail how the delays in receiving settlement money left them essentially in limbo.

The tentative agreement is among the largest paid to victims of a mass shooting.

"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 statement Wednesday. "Today’s announcement brings the litigation to a close, ending a painful chapter for the victims of this unthinkable crime."

The DOJ added in a statement, "The NICS plays a critical role in combatting gun violence, and the federal government is always striving to improve the functioning of that system. The Department continues to work actively to combat gun violence as part of its comprehensive violent crime reduction strategy."