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Colorado Legislators Play It Safe

"Shame on you."

Like monkeys and reporters, state lawmakers can be a shameless bunch. But that didn't stop Randy Brown from heaping shame on members of the House Civil Justice and Judiciary Committee last week. After four hours of emotion-charged testimony, including pleas by Brown and other parents to seek the truth, the committee effectively killed efforts to launch a legislative investigation into the Columbine massacre and its aftermath.

The surprisingly lopsided 7-2 vote squashing HJR 1017 was more than a political setback for the bill's sponsor, Littleton representative Don Lee. Members of several victims' families testified that the proposal was their last hope to break through police stonewalling and try to resolve unanswered questions about the 1999 school shootings and the investigation that followed. Lee's bill called for an investigative panel that, unlike previous task forces, would have had the authority to issue subpoenas and compel testimony ("There Ought to Be a Law," March 7).

"I don't want to do this," Lee told his colleagues. "But this is something I feel we need to do."

Yet as Lee, Brown and other backers of the measure quickly discovered, there is no problem so vast, no crisis so grave that the Colorado Legislature can't rise to the occasion -- and refuse to take any action whatsoever.

A course of no action was precisely the remedy urged by the bill's chief opponent, Bill Tuthill, acting county attorney for Jefferson County. Tuthill, who's in the midst of defending the county and various police officers against lawsuits filed by victims' families, began his testimony by putting on display three hand trucks stacked with investigative files; the idea was to give the lawmakers a glimpse of the "unprecedented volume" of material about Columbine that the county has already released.

"The truth is that, contrary to what you may read in the newspapers, a wealth of information has been produced," Tuthill said. "This inquiry is unnecessary."

When it was their turn to speak, the victims' families pointed out that the mother lode of documents Tuthill was boasting about had only been released by court order, over the county attorney's protests, through open-records litigation by the families and the media. And those documents had only served to point out serious contradictions between the sheriff's version of what happened at Columbine and what the actual evidence shows, leading to growing concerns about other police records that may be missing or destroyed.

"There is no one to hold the officials accountable," said Brian Rohrbough, whose son, Dan, was murdered at Columbine. "This is why people lose their faith in government."

But several lawmakers seemed uneasy about embarking on a search for answers about Columbine, especially armed with subpoena power. Boulder representative Alice Madden doubted the wisdom of sending "six politicians in an election year" on such a mission, even with the assistance of professional legal counsel. "I have great fears that this body is not the way to do it," she says.

Dawn Anna, mother of slain Columbine valedictorian Lauren Townsend, tried to urge the lawmakers out of their timidity. "Have the strength to go where there is no path, and then leave a trail," she told them. Then she added a pointed reference to the executions of Lauren and nine others while police officers stood outside the school awaiting orders: "We already know what happens when people stand by and do nothing."

She also asked the group, "If not you, who? If not now, when?"

The answer: Not us, not ever. Lawmakers who'd started the hearing fretting about "retraumatizing" victims had, by the end, concluded that the ongoing trauma they were facing was just too overwhelming to investigate; better to do nothing. Representative Joe Stengel, who apparently has lived in a media-proof bubble for the past three years, seemed puzzled at the outset about what there might be left to investigate with regard to Columbine; several hours later, after hearing a stream of allegations about police lies, suppressed evidence and thwarted inquiries, he declared that any competent investigation might take three years rather than the six months Lee was asking for.

In the closing minutes of the hearing, Lee and committee chairman Shawn Mitchell scrambled to amend the bill to keep it alive, even pledging to seek out donations to reduce the cost of the effort. It did no good; their colleagues soon dispatched the whole matter to oblivion.

"We could focus on several things and do it badly," Madden observed.

Randy Brown said it was a shame. Some family members wept. Staying on a familiar path, the legislators made a beeline for the exit. Afterward, Lee told reporters that he'd thought he had the votes to keep the probe alive. He vowed to try again, next time with a more narrowly focused proposal. Because as Lee sees it, it's the inability to resolve basic questions that perpetuates the trauma of Columbine.

"The retraumatization is happening now," he told his colleagues. "My own son asks me, 'When is this thing going to stop?'"

 
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