Between a Rock and a Hard Place

The truth will out -- just not in Jefferson County.

But that avenue may be a dead end, too. Senate candidate Tom Strickland preceded Suthers as U.S. Attorney; he was sworn in on April 21, 1999, and spent his first day on the job at the school with then-attorney general Janet Reno. "The standard is a reasonable belief that federal law has been violated," he says of cases given to federal grand juries. "That's what the U.S. Attorney's Office will look to; that's the standard families will have to meet. The grand juries are not a fact-finding group. They're not a group that goes out and issues reports. They're highly secret."

And haven't there been too many secrets already? Colorado's most infamous federal grand jury was charged with investigating alleged environmental crimes at Rocky Flats. Since that grand jury was disbanded in 1992 -- after writing a report revealing that jurors had wanted to indict federal employees for criminal acts, which then-U.S. attorney Mike Norton refused to do -- the jurors have been fighting to reveal what really happened behind closed doors. Their request to be released from their oath of secrecy is still pending before federal judge Richard Matsch.

The jurors' attorney, Jonathan Turley, doubts that a federal grand jury is the answer for Columbine: "Most federal prosecutors would rather drink molten lead than take a case like this to a grand jury, since it creates enormous tensions between state and federal officials."

And there's a problem beyond jurisdiction. "The federal government can look hypocritical going after state officials after Waco," Turley says. "Whatever negligence occurred at Columbine, it is a fraction of the proven misconduct and negligence that occurred at Waco."

A civil court could uncover the truth about Columbine, but Jeffco has another week to respond to Arrington's December 26 filing -- and then there's no guarantee that Babcock will reinstate the complete lawsuits.

In the meantime, the families have another alternative: an investigation by the state legislature. "Columbine is the prototypical example of a case worthy of investigation by representatives of the people," says Turley. "That's the most appropriate place to investigate possible negligence and any questions of a coverup." And unlike the Governor's Commission on Columbine, which was stymied at every turn by its lack of subpoena power, a legislative commission would have that tool. "If the state legislature reveals some real manifest misconduct," Turley adds, "it can ripen into a criminal case."

Although the concept of a legislative commission hasn't emerged publicly, it's floating close to the surface. Don Lee, the state representative whose district includes Columbine, says he's considered different ways the legislature might get involved. Arrington's actively exploring the possibility. "An option we are going to pursue is a legislative commission with subpoena power," he says, adding that he's found a surprising level of support at the State Capitol, where he recently served (and "vehemently opposed" a bill giving district grand juries the right to break their silence -- a position he says he'd now reconsider, given the trouble he's had uncovering the real story of Columbine).

"There are cosmic alignments where it's not partisan at all," he says. "Democrats and Republicans have the same goal: to find the truth."

We'd settle for that.

More Columbine coverage in our Columbine Reader

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