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Texas church shooting victims seek bigger payments from the government

NOEL KING, HOST:

Four years ago, a gunman entered a church in the town of Sutherland Springs, Texas, and killed 26 people. This past summer, the government was found liable for mistakes that allowed him to buy his guns. And soon a federal judge will determine how much money the government will have to pay survivors. Here's Paul Flahive from Texas Public Radio.

PAUL FLAHIVE, BYLINE: After weeks of expert testimony about the damages inflicted by former airman Devin Kelley, Judge Xavier Rodriguez asked both sides to give him new estimates on what families are owed by the government. The numbers were miles apart. The government says it should pay only $31 million and the victims demand more than $419 million in damages for the horrific events of November 2017. The judge sought to understand each side's calculations, at one point saying he wished the trial had a jury, decided by a dozen people, rather than just him. But the Federal Tort Claims Act offers no right to a jury trial. Jamal Alsaffar, an attorney for the victims, said the government offer didn't align with much higher settlements in the Parkland, Fla., school shooting or in the Charleston church shooting.

JAMAL ALSAFFAR: The government - U.S. government has decided to settle two other shooting cases in which their culpability was far less than what they did here.

FLAHIVE: In his closing arguments, he said the government was never really serious or, quote, "interested in doing the right thing." Victims' lawyers detailed the catastrophic damage done to families who saw children killed, a 9-year-old who saw her mother and two sisters murdered in front of her. The government defended its lower number, arguing it was fair and that emotion needed to be taken out of the determination. The Air Force's failure to turn over the gunman's criminal record to the FBI in this case highlighted a systemic problem that extended across the military. Emory University law professor Fred Smith Jr. says the Sutherland Springs trial could spur additional cases.

FRED SMITH JR: Assuming that some percentage of those failures also resulted in homicides, then moving forward, we would expect to see, you know, more of these cases filed if this was successful.

FLAHIVE: The judge is expected to make a ruling on financial settlements in a few weeks, but it isn't clear the government will accept Rodriguez's original verdict in the summer that found the Air Force liable and may still appeal that decision.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Flahive. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.