Judge Finesilver almost gave the Rocky Flats grand jury a big twentieth birthday present

Twenty years ago, the Rocky Flats grand jury started its search for justice. It hasn't ended yet.

After a four-month trial that involved dozens of witnesses, the jury decided that both defendants — Dow Chemical Co., which had run the plant from its inception until 1975, and Rockwell, which had run Rocky Flats from 1975 until the feds shut down operations in 1989 — were liable. The plaintiffs were awarded $354 million in compensatory and $200 million in punitive damages — a record verdict in Colorado, and the first time punitive damages had ever been awarded against a nuclear weapons contractor. By the time Judge Kane upheld the verdict last year, the judgment, plus interest, had reached a whopping $926 million.

Even though the government will pick up the final tab — the Price-Anderson Act indemnifies contractors like Dow and Rockwell against damage awards as well as legal fees (close to $100 million has been billed by the defendants' attorneys alone) — the companies are appealing.

But at least one win is definitive: Last month, the ten attorneys who fought for the homeowners were named the 2009 Trial Lawyer of the Year by the Public Justice Foundation, sharing the award with the New York lawyers who'd fought for the victims of the 1988 Pan Am bombing.

"I was a young man," DeBoskey says of the case's early days. "It was such a labor of love, such a lifetime of work for all the lawyers. Citizens against giant corporations and the government. Citizens had the truth, and a team of lawyers from three cities were willing to fight for that truth. A great judge and a great jury were willing to believe that truth."

Will we ever know the truths contained in Finesilver's files? According to court clerk Langham, not while those papers concern "pending issues." Finesilver himself might have thought all Rocky Flats matters would be settled by 2009 — but he, more than anyone, should have known that the truth doesn't come easy at Rocky Flats.

After a ten-year, $7 billion cleanup, more than 6,000 acres of former plant property were turned over to the U.S. Department of Interior's Fish & Wildlife Service, which plans to open much of the area to the public as a wildlife refuge as early as next year. The Rocky Flats Stewardship Council, a consortium of local governments and groups, is working with the DOE Office of Legacy Management and Fish & Wildlife on a number of issues involved with the project, including environmental monitoring and interpretive signage for site.

"Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it," quotes David Abelson, the council's executive director. "How do we as a community not forget the past, and also remember the obligations? You can't tell the story of Rocky Flats in a quick little sign."

McKinley has a chapter of that story in the journal he kept during his days on the grand jury, more of it in the book he co-wrote, The Ambushed Grand Jury, and he still hopes to tell the rest one day — if not in Congress, then at the State Capitol, where he's now a representative. He's served there twice as long as he served on Finesilver's grand jury.

"And we were the first grand jury to be around long enough to have a Christmas party," he says.

The judge's files would have made a fine twentieth anniversary present.

For Calhoun's selected archive of Rocky Flats coverage, go to the Latest Word Blog. Contact the author at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

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