Columbine is phenomenally researched and written about many angles of the massacre by two students at Columbine High School in April 1999. The book is correctly described as riveting journalism and “the story none of us knew.” It took Dave Cullen nearly ten years to write it.
Compare how a district judge in Colorado dealt with the delay by officials and an open records request by two families who had been waiting almost a year for a report on the sheriff’s findings. A YEAR. It seems plain that officials were delaying the release of the report for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the one-year statute of limitations for wrongful death lawsuits.
The summer after the April massacre at Columbine High School, Jefferson County investigators said their report on the crime was six to eight weeks away. (Columbine at p. 297.) As the one-year anniversary to the killings approached, Jefferson County again said the report was six to eight weeks out. My family has heard the “six to eight week” mantra many, many times since 2006 in the OCCK investigation. “Don’t go to the media just yet; give us six to eight weeks.” We did it many times until we couldn’t look ourselves in the mirror any more for having been strung along so many times.
The Jefferson County, CO, investigators wrapped up most of their work in the first four months, but were “skittish about presenting the information. Yet the longer they waited, the more leaks they risked, the more rebukes, and the higher the stakes to get every sentence right.” (Id.) Delay compounded delay.
The statute of limitations for a wrongful death suit in Colorado is one year. Ten days before the anniversary, two families (the Rohrboughs and the Flemmings) filed an open records request demanding to see the report immediately—one last option to avoid lawsuits for wrongful death or negligence. Most of the families just wanted to see the promised report. Six to eight weeks had turned into 51 weeks.
Fifteen other families filed suits against the sheriff’s department in the following days. “The cops had been stonewalling, and litigation looked like the only answer. Families could sue for negligence or wrongful death, and use the process to force out information. The verdict would be less important than discovery.” (Id.) As Dave Cullen explains, the lawsuits were expected to fail because the legal thresholds in federal court were too high—negligence was insufficient. (Id. at 298.) “The main strategy was to flush out information.” (Id.) How sad that it had come to that.
The open records case was heard before Colorado District Judge R. Brooke Jackson. The Rohrboughs and the Flemmings wanted to see the report and since they were filing, they also asked for everything, “including the Basement Tapes, the killers’ journals, the 911 calls, and the surveillance videos. Rohrbough wanted to compare the raw data to the narrative under construction by Jeffco. He predicted a chasm. ‘They lie as a practice,’ he said.” (Id.)
Judge Jackson read the request and said yes. “Over furious objections from Jeffco, three days before the anniversary, he allowed the plaintiffs to read the draft report. He also granted them access to hundreds of hours of 911 tapes and some video footage. He agreed to begin reading the two hundred binders of evidence himself, but noted that would take months.” (Id.) A few days later, Judge Jackson ordered the sheriff’s department to release its report to the public by May 15.
He also released more evidence, including a video that drew a lot of heat. For months, Jeffco had referred to it as a ‘training video’ created by the Littleton Fire Department. It was based on footage shot in the library shortly after the bodies were removed. It would be the families’ first look at the gruesome scene. It would be ‘difficult’ to watch, Jackson’s ruling stated, but that was no reason to suppress it.
‘There is no compelling public interest consideration that requires that the video or any part of it not be disclosed under the Open Records Act,’ Jackson wrote.
The next day, Jeffco began duplicating the tape and selling copies for $25. Spokesman said the fee was to defray copying costs. The families were aghast.
. . .
Brian Rohrbough had broken through Jeffco’s armor. Judge Jackson kept ordering releases. In May, he unleashed all the 911 tapes and a ballistics report. For a while, every thing he read, he released. The killers’ families tried to stop him [unsuccessfully].
(Id. at 299.)
The county released its report on May 15, as ordered. The report was ridiculed, even without the public knowing at the time that Jefferson County was still suppressing the file on Harris and the search warrants. “Officials seemed truly bewildered by the [public’s] response. Privately, they insisted they were just acting the way they always did: building a case internally, keeping their conclusions to themselves. Communicating the results was the prosecutors’ role. It wasn’t their job. They still couldn’t grasp that this was not any normal case.” (Id. at 300.)
It would be four more years before Sheriff’s Detective Mike Guerra would confess to participating in the Open Space Meeting, where destruction of the pre-massacre file on Harris was discussed and subsequently implemented. Officials had boldly lied at the press conference ten days after the killings and repeated these lies for years. In August 2004, “the Colorado attorney general called a grand jury to flush the file out and consider indictments. (Id. at 343.) “The file was never recovered, though investigators were able to reconstruct most of it.” (Id. at 344.)
The grand jury’s September 2004 report contained many whopping understatements. It found the fact that Guerra’s file was stored in three separate places and that all three were destroyed during the summer of 1999, was “troubling.”
It was also “troubled” by the Open Space meeting, attended by the county attorney, among others, press conference omissions and the apparent shredding of documents by a secretary at the request of a sheriff division chief. “But every witness denied involvement in the destruction, the report said. Given that, the grand jury could not determine whether the suspicious activity ‘is tied to a particular person or the result of a particular crime.’ Accordingly, it concluded there was insufficient evidence to indict.” (Id. at 344.)
So, I ask again—were the families who filed the open records lawsuit or the families who felt they had to file wrongful death and negligence suits because law enforcement was not responding, disrespecting the people working the case or the legal system? Just who was being disrespected?! Multiply that one year delay in Columbine by 36 and ask who is doing the disrespecting in the OCCK case.