Attorneys for a newspaper asked the Colorado Supreme Court on 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 high court heard arguments from The Denver Post, the parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and the Jefferson County sheriff’s office, which seized the materials from the teenagers’ homes shortly after they killed 12 students and a teacher in April 1999.
Attorneys for the sheriff and the gunmen’s parents say the videos and documents are private property and should not be released.
Numerous reporters and victims’ families have already seen some of the materials, including videos shown by the sheriff in which the teens display their arsenal and eagerly talk about plans to attack the school. Also included is a journal by Harris’ father.
Post attorney Steve Zansberg said the fact that the records are being held by the sheriff’s office and were used in the criminal investigation should open the materials to public review if a judge determines that releasing them would not be against the public interest.
He said such documents are necessary for the public to review the actions of its government, citing an alleged discrepancy in statements by former Sheriff John Stone.
Days after the shooting, Stone said other people may have been involved in the attack. But about a year later, the sheriff said there was no evidence suggesting anyone else was 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.
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.
Zansberg said the case would affect only the records seized in the Columbine investigation.
The justices did not indicate when they would rule. If they agree with the Post that the documents are public records, a judge would then determine which, if any, could be released.
A lower court judge originally ruled the materials were not public records, but the state Court of Appeals reversed the ruling. The sheriff’s office and the teens’ parents appealed to the Supreme Court.
In an unrelated federal case in 2002, attorneys for both sets of parents said they feared public release of the tapes and their sons’ writings could prompt copycat attacks and could glorify the nation’s worst school shooting