Columbine seeks closure - out of court
Victims' parents must look elsewhere for solace as federal judge dismisses legal case.
DENVER — Victims' families were dealt the cruelest blow when their loved ones were killed or injured in the Columbine school shooting more than two years ago.
Many felt slapped again this week when a federal district court dismissed lawsuits filed by 15 of 16 families, alleging that the local sheriff's department and school district failed to catch the warning signs from the Columbine killers and responded too slowly once the shooting started.
But US District Court Judge Lewis Babcock ruled that the alleged signals - including a violent website and grisly school essay - were not enough to predict the 1999 attack, and that officers had fulfilled their duty.
The ruling shifts the legal battleground, and consequently the emotional one, 2-1/2 years after the deadliest school shooting in US history.
Converting grief into legalese is something of an American trademark. From plane crashes to SUV rollovers, the courts are a popular venue to help pinpoint blame and act as an emotional salve for those affected by tragedy.
But the convergence of the legal and emotional has been particularly acute in the Columbine case, as the community struggles to move ahead while still trying to learn lessons from the past.
"The one thing that these lawsuits do is keep people looking backward, and the key to healing is moving forward," says Richard Lieberman, a Los Angeles-based psychologist who is a member of the National Association of School Psychologists National Emergency Assistance Team. Still, he says, lawsuits can bring order to chaos, and change laws for the better.
Many of the Columbine victims who filed suits still hope the legal system will provide accountability and a more accurate version of events.
"I want to know the last moments of my child's life from every angle," says Don Fleming, whose daughter Kelly was one of 15 people killed when shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire in the April, 1999, incident. Rich Petrone, whose stepson Dan Rohrbough was also killed at Columbine, does not think his lawsuit makes it more difficult to begin healing.
"I think in the long run it makes you stronger, because you are fighting for the right thing, the truth," Mr. Petrone says. "It helps you, because you've got a focus on something good. We're trying to make something good out of something bad."
SOME of the victims' families did not file suit. Others have already settled with the parents of the two teenage gunmen. At least a half-dozen other claims are still pending against them, and remain unaffected by the ruling Tuesday.
In this case, Judge Babcock ruled that the contents of the perpetrators' website and school essays did not "forecast the Columbine attack." In 250 pages of rulings that encompassed nine suits filed by 16 families, he held that the Jefferson County sheriffs' deputies had no duty to save the lives of students and staff.
Quoting from a supporting case, Babcock noted that law-enforcement officials at Columbine were required to make "split-second judgements - in circumstances that are tense, uncertain, and rapidly evolving."
The judge did allow the suit filed by Angela Sanders, daughter of slain teacher Dave Sanders, to move forward.
The court noted that rescuers did not reach Sanders and several students until 4 p.m. They had already called 911 and put a note in the window giving their location. But Sanders' "survivable wounds had become fatal and he died," by then, the court noted.
The sheriff's department says it is still reviewing the ruling in the Sanders case. Several victims' families say they will appeal.