Newspaper argues for release of Columbine killers’ videos, writings
DENVER ” Newspaper attorneys asked the Colorado Supreme Court Tuesday to rule that videotapes and writings made by the Columbine gunmen before their bloody rampage are public records, which could clear the way for a judge to release them.
The Jefferson County sheriff’s office seized the material from the homes of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shortly after the two killed 12 students and a teacher in April 1999.
Attorneys for the sheriff and the gunmen’s parents say the material is private property and cannot be released, even though it was used in the criminal investigation and remains in the sheriff’s custody.
The material includes the “basement tapes,” videos where the teens show off their arsenal and eagerly talk about their plan to attack the school. Also included is a journal by Harris’ father, Wayne Harris, according to court documents.
If the Supreme Court agrees with The Denver Post that the documents are public records, a Jefferson County district judge would then determine which, if any, could be released.
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The district judge originally ruled the material was not public record, but the state Court of Appeals reversed the ruling. The sheriff’s office, the Klebolds and the Harrises appealed to the Supreme Court.
Numerous reporters and victims’ families have already seen some of the documents, but attorneys on both sides said that should not affect the Supreme Court’s decision.
Brian Rohrbough, whose son Daniel was killed in the attack, said even if the Supreme Court ruled in the Post’s favor, he didn’t believe any of the material would be released.
“They shine a glaring light not only on the Klebolds and Harrises, which deserve the light, but on Jefferson County,” Rohrbough said. “I think the courts have been very sympathetic to Jefferson County.”
Like many other victims, Rohrbough believes the teens’ parents and the county government have tried to avoid responsibility by covering up knowledge they had about Harris and Klebold before the attack that might have helped authorities prevent it. County officials and attorneys for the Harrises and Klebolds have denied that.
“I’m proud of my son, and with good reason,” he said. “The only thing I’ve asked (of the Harrises and Klebolds) is tell the truth. You can’t change what happened to my son and 12 other innocent victims, just tell the truth.”
The justices did not indicate when they would rule.
Attorneys on both sides have said it may be the first time the state Supreme Court has considered whether private documents seized under a search warrant could ever become part of the public record against the owner’s will.
Assistant Jefferson County Attorney Lily Oeffler said releasing private property seized under a search warrant would threaten the privacy rights of all Colorado residents and businesses. Such documents should never become public record unless a judge has admitted them as evidence in a trial, she said.
“I just don’t see how you can convert a private record into a public one just because it’s in the hands of government,” Oeffler said.
Steve Zansberg, the attorney for the Post, said the case would affect only the records seized in the Columbine investigation.
The fact the records are being held by the sheriff’s office and that the agency used the documents in its investigation should open them to public review if a judge determines release would not be against the public interest.
He said such documents are necessary for the public to be able to review the actions of its government.
Days after the shooting, Zansberg said then-Sheriff John Stone said the gunmen’s parents must have known of the killers’ plans, and said others may have been involved. But about a year later, he said there was no evidence suggesting others were involved.
“How is the public able to understand the difference between a statement made immediately after (the sheriff’s) review of these documents and a statement made a year later without reviewing them?” Zansberg said.
In an unrelated federal court case in 2002, attorneys for both sets of parents said in a filing they feared that public release of the tapes and some of their sons’ writings could prompt copycat attacks and could glorify the nation’s worst school shooting.
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