Charges, suits in Colo. shooting could be wide-ranging

Indictments might target gunmen's parents, friends

April 27, 1999|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Parents, teachers and even friends of the gunmen at Columbine High School could face criminal charges or civil suits if it can be proven that they knew or should have known it was being planned.

Colorado Gov. Bill Owens and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno have raised the possibility of holding the parents of Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, responsible for their deadly rampage a week ago, which left one of their teachers and 12 classmates dead. The two then took their own lives, police say.

Experts say making such a case stick is difficult, and that assigning formal blame can be painful.

But the Harris and Klebold families, which have both obtained lawyers, may face lawsuits from other grieving parents. So, too, could school officials, gun manufacturers, the Internet service providers that maintained Web sites the youths used to brag of their plans, and even the police -- who stormed the school but have been criticized for waiting before moving in.

As for criminal indictments, the parents could be charged with negligence, and friends of the suspects who knew of or helped carry out the bomb and gun attack could be accused of conspiracy and other charges, according to legal experts.

Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone said that investigators found the sawed-off barrel of a shotgun in plain view in the room of one of the suspects, along with bomb-making materials.

`Parents should have known'

"The parents should have known," Stone said.

One parent of a Columbine student has come forward to say he complained to authorities when his son was threatened by Harris, and provided police with printouts of Harris' rantings on a personal Web page.

Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas said last week that the father of one of the youths was suspicious enough of his son's involvement once the attack began to call police and offer to help.

Whether or not that knowledge rises to criminal or civil neglect, however, is uncertain.

Warnings not heeded

"There seems to have been enough guns and ammunition at the house that makes you question why they didn't know," said Marc Kaplan, president of the Colorado Trial Lawyers' Association.

Likewise, some in Littleton say that teachers and school administrators failed to heed warnings. Fellow students say Harris and Klebold spoke of killing and bombing the school, but they dismissed it as boasting.

Even the county's criminal justice system has been criticized. The two boys were convicted of breaking into a van a year ago and completed a rehabilitation program for troublemakers. Their progress was so good the program graduated the youths early.

But, Andrew Cohen, a Denver lawyer and legal analyst, said, "From what we know now, I think filing charges against the parents is extremely unlikely."

Holding a parent accountable requires solid evidence that the parents knew or should have known exactly what the gunmen had planned -- not just that they were toying with weapons, he said.

Arkansas case

David Cahoon, an attorney for the parents of Andrew Golden, 12, one of the two boys who shot four classmates and a teacher last year in Jonesboro, Ark., is mounting that defense.

In documents he filed in court, he said, "A parent is not liable for mere lack of supervision where the child has shown no previous propensity for the type of act which caused the injury."

Kaplan said there may be a case to be made even if the parents in the Columbine killings merely knew that their children were violating gun laws. Permitting a juvenile to have a handgun is a felony in Colorado.

Lawyers, he said, could argue, "We're not saying the parents are responsible for what these kids did. We're saying the parents are responsible for what they did."

Shootings in Kentucky

In West Paducah, Ky., the relatives of three teen-agers gunned down at their high school in December 1997 have sued confessed shooter Michael Carneal, his parents, school officials and other students who they say conspired with the killer.

A judge dismissed all but 10 of the 45 original defendants. Those remaining are Carneal, his parents, the owner of the guns used in the shooting and six friends of Carneal's. The trial likely won't start until next year.

A separate lawsuit in West Paducah, filed April 12, takes on some segments of the entertainment industry, claiming they profited from selling violent imagery that inspired the killer.

In Jonesboro, the victims' families sued the parents of the convicted killers, manufacturers of the guns they used, and one boy's grandfather, who owned the guns. The judge threw out several motions to dismiss the case.

That suit seeks $130 million against two Internet porn sites, several computer game companies and the makers and distributors of the film "The Basketball Diaries," which shows the lead character gunning down his teacher and classmates in a dream sequence.

Ordinary families

By most accounts, the Klebold and Harris families appeared ordinary, complicating efforts to link the parents to the crimes.

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