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Burden of Proof

Columbine Shooting Report: Does it Provide Answers to the Families of the Victims?

Aired May 17, 2000 - 12:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

TEACHER: Oh, my god, that was really close.

OPERATOR: OK.

What's your name, ma'am?

TEACHER: My name is Patty.

OPERATOR: Patty:

TEACHER: He's in the library. He's shooting at...

JUDY BROWN, MOTHER OF COLUMBINE STUDENT: They let the killers take over our school. They stood outside. They let this happen.

OPERATOR: OK, you've got the kids there?

TEACHER: In the library, and I've got every student in this library -- on the floor, you guys, stay on the floor.

OPERATOR: Is there any way you can lock the doors?

TEACHER: Smoke is coming in from out there and (gun fire). The gun is right outside the library door, OK. I don't think I'm going to go out there.

OPERATOR: You're at Columbine High School?

TEACHER: I've got three children.

OPERATOR: OK.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

ROGER COSSACK, CO-HOST: Today on BURDEN OF PROOF: Authorities release a CD-ROM of the Columbine shooting. It's packed with details of the Littleton tragedy, but does it provide answers to the families of the victims?

ANNOUNCER: This is BURDEN OF PROOF with Roger Cossack and Greta Van Susteren. COSSACK: Hello, and welcome to BURDEN OF PROOF. This week, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department released a report on the Columbine High School shooting on CD-ROM. The report claims that 12 students were killed by the gunmen in the first 16 minutes of the rampage.

VAN SUSTEREN: Monday's release was a court-mandated action as several of the victims' families have filed lawsuits against the sheriff's department. The CD-ROM includes about 700 pages of text, pictures and surveillance camera video and audio of 911 calls made from the school.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

OPERATOR: Jefferson County 911.

TEACHER: Yes. I'm a teacher at Columbine High School. There is a student here with a gun. He has shot out a window. I believe...

OPERATOR: Columbine High School.

TEACHER: I don't know what's in my shoulder, if it was just some glass or...

OPERATOR: OK, has anybody been injured, ma'am?

TEACHER: Yes, yes.

OPERATOR: OK.

TEACHER: And the school is in a panic and I am in the library. I've got students down -- under the table, kids.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

COSSACK: Joining us today from Littleton, Colorado is James Rouse, attorney for Brian Rohrbough, father of slain Columbine victim; here in Washington, Sarah Welles (ph), attorney for the family of Dave Sanders; Peter Grenier, and Ken Francisco (ph).

VAN SUSTEREN: And in the back row, Trey Pricedale (ph), Scott and Mitchell Spearman (ph).

Peter, let me go first to you. You have filed a lawsuit on behalf of the estate of the teacher, William David Sanders, who died in this tragedy. What time was he shot and what time did he die?

PETER GRENIER, ATTORNEY FOR ANGELA SANDERS: He was shot before 11:40 a.m. And as we know, the two shooters, Klebold and Harris, were dead by about 12:15 p.m. We have conflicting reports. The autopsy report reflects that Dr. Colwell (ph) officially declared Mr. Sanders dead at 4:45 p.m. However, we understand -- and there are conflicting reports, and the facts that we have from our witnesses differ greatly from those in the Columbine report -- but we understand that he died sometime between 3:30 and 4:00 p.m. VAN SUSTEREN: And are you -- now you say that he was officially declared dead. That may just be because that's when they got in and discovered the body. But can you tell with a scientific certainty -- because obviously the question is whether he bled to death for a long time or whether someone could have rescued him and saved his life -- but do you have any medical science, evidence to pinpoint the precise time of death?

GRENIER: Well, we have the eyewitnesses who said that Mr. Sanders was still speaking.

VAN SUSTEREN: Till what time?

GRENIER: At least 3:30 p.m.

COSSACK: Peter, in your lawsuit, you allege many things against the SWAT team, one of which you knew -- you allege that they knew that the shooters were dead, they knew that he was bleeding to death, that he was in an easily accessible room, that they called it a hostage situation when it really wasn't a hostage situation. How do you intend to prove these things?

GRENIER: Well, a lot of the proof is in the pudding with the footage, the raw footage that's been produced by various members of the media. We have a lot of witnesses that were in Science Room 3 with Mr. Sanders, and a lot of the facts really are contained in the Columbine report that are irrefutable.

VAN SUSTEREN: But there's what's interesting about the report. The report has the videotape of what was going on inside the school but outside the school, the sheriff's office obviously didn't know exactly what was going on. I think the key question is, you know, is whether, you know, they had a reasonable expectation of danger going in there, whether or not they thought there might be bombs or other people involved in the shooting.

Do you have any evidence they knew that it was over, it was safe and they could go in earlier than they did?

GRENIER: Well, the focus, from my perspective, is the rescuability of Mr. Sanders coupled with the impeding by law enforcement of Mr. Sanders and people around Mr. Sanders ability to walk out of the school. To me, the tragic irony here is that if no law enforcement showed up at all to Columbine High School that day, Mr. Sanders would likely be alive.

VAN SUSTEREN: But it's not the question looking back in hindsight. It's really what's reasonable under the circumstances, I presume is the law that would govern this, and whether it was, you know, reasonable the activity of the sheriffs, not whether it was tragic, not in hindsight whether, you know, this poor man's life could have been saved but what was in the mind or what did they know and what were the reasonable actions of sheriff's department outside. Can you defeat their actions being reasonable?

GRENIER: Well, I will tell you this. We have witnesses that will say -- and this was noticeably absent from the report as well -- that there were continuous 911 calls from cell phones and from a wall phone in Science Room 3 where Mr. Sanders where repeated assurances were given for hours, "We'll be in within 10 minutes."

COSSACK: But Peter, that really -- doesn't really I think answer Greta's question. What Greta's question I think is goes to the point of the concern that there may have been booby traps and bombs. And the notion of saying, "We'll be in in 10 minutes," and perhaps they should have, but if they reasonably thought under the circumstances that they had to do things to make sure that every step that they took didn't set off a bomb or a booby trap, doesn't that cause a problem for you? I mean, couldn't they argue that, in fact, what Mr. Sanders really was, what teacher Sanders really was was another victim of Klebold and Harris but only he died later?

GRENIER: No. And it sounds like the premise of your question is that they had to come to Mr. Sanders from within the school. And that's absolutely not the case. As we know, Science Room 3 is on the second floor of the school. We know that the school is against sort of the hill so there are door entries from both levels of the school. This was sort of like a terrarium or an aquarium, if you will. This was all glass. He was on the southern most part of the school. There were rescue helicopters, there were at least 48 rescue and fire vehicles. There 166 rescue and fire personnel. They could very easily have gone into the glass, the windows from the outside and retrieve Mr. Sanders.

We also know that Patrick Ireland, who we have that footage that will probably epitomize Columbine for the rest of our lives, Patrick Ireland at one point, in fact, did jump out the window and they pulled an armored truck up to the window in the library which was only four or five windows away from where Mr. Sanders was. So they easily could have extracted him through the glass.

VAN SUSTEREN: Let's go to Denver, Colorado to Jim Rouse.

Jim, you have filed a lawsuit on behalf of the families of some of the people who have died in this. Is your -- are your allegations and your complaint different from those contained in Peter's?

JAMES ROUSE, ATTORNEY FOR BRIAN ROHRBOUGH: Well, our situations are a little different. We really have two cases within the one case that we filed. First, we have Danny Rohrbough. His parents claim that it was a sheriff's bullet that actually killed him outside the school.

I then represent the families of four of the slain students who died in the library. And their situation is a little different, also. You know, they were told to stay put, police were there, police were on the way. They had escape routes out the back door but the 911 operators told them to stay put. Sheriff's deputies outside knew what was going on. They knew that people were being executed. They knew the shots were being fired and they sat outside to put up a perimeter instead of going inside to go after the gunmen.

VAN SUSTEREN: Before we go to break, let me ask you a quick question, Jim. If your client was killed by a sheriff's bullet but it was accidental, assuming that you can prove that that even happened and, of course, the sheriff denies that, does that in any way relieve the sheriff's department of liability as to that particular case?

ROUSE: Well, as you know, Greta, the sheriff's department has withheld information. We've had to file an open records case to get to the information. A lot of it's going to depend on where police officers were, what was going on out there and that type of thing. But at this point in time, the explanation that he was shot by a police office is as plausible or more plausible than the explanation that the sheriff's department has given to the family.

COSSACK: Jim, you've recovered the bullet. Was it a sheriff's bullet?

ROUSE: No, the fatal bullet has never been recovered. Two of the three bullets that hit Daniel Rohrbough have not been recovered.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, well, we're going to take a break and when we come back, surveying a crime scene, the challenges facing SWAT teams, local police and the FBI as a crime unfolds. Stay with us.

(BEGIN LEGAL BRIEF)

According to Justice Department statistics, in each of the past five years, 2,296 of violent attacks against women were committed by intimate partners. Only 396 of violence against men was caused by intimate partners.

(END LEGAL BRIEF)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: Good news for our Internet-savvy viewers. You can now watch BURDEN OF PROOF live on the World Wide Web. Just log on to cnn.com/burden. We now provide a live video feed Monday through Friday at 12:30 p.m. Eastern time. And if you miss that live show, the program is available on the site at any time via video-on-demand. You can also interact with our show and even join our chat room.

(BEGIN AUDIO CLIP)

OPERATOR: OK, we've got help on the way, ma'am.

TEACHER: OK. Oh, god.

OPERATOR: Stay on the line with me.

TEACHER: Oh, god. Kids, just stay down.

OPERATOR: Do we know where he's at?

TEACHER: I'm sorry?

OPERATOR: Do we know where he's at?

TEACHER: OK. I'm in the library. He's upstairs. He's right outside of here.

OPERATOR: He's outside?

TEACHER: He's outside of this hall.

OPERATOR: Outside of the hall or outside...

TEACHER: He's in the hall...

OPERATOR: OK.

TEACHER: There are alarms and things going off. There's smoke, my god, smoke is like coming into this room.

(END AUDIO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: This week in Littleton, Colorado, authorities released a CD-ROM of their findings from last year's Columbine shooting. Yesterday, I spoke with Darryl Scott, who's the father of 17-year-old Rachel Scott, believed to be the first student killed in the massacre.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: Do you have any criticism of the sheriff's department or of the response to the scene that day?

DARRYL SCOTT, FATHER OF COLUMBINE VICTIM: I have a lot of criticism for the sheriff himself and some of the members of his department. I think there's a lot of brave policemen that were there, a lot of brave SWAT team members, firemen, and I applaud them. So I don't want to lump everyone in the same category but the victims' families have been lied to and we have been, in my opinion, mistreated several times. And we weren't told the truth about some things.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: We're joined now on the telephone by Bill Henshaw, who's a former FBI special agent, and he commanded the FBI SWAT team in Atlanta.

Bill, there's a big difference between being critical of the sheriff because the sheriff may have lied and being critical of the sheriff and the SWAT team response at that high school. What do you make of the response that was done that day?

BILL HENSHAW, FORMER FBI SPECIAL AGENT: Well, as I understand it, the SWAT team, or a make-shift SWAT team assaulted did -- made the first assault some 40 minutes after the first police unit arrived on scene. In my experience, that's a really remarkable amount of time for someone to at least initiate that type of action because the officers who characteristically make up SWAT teams come from various assignments and they have to be assembled. And the make-shift team, I would assume, involved people from multiple jurisdictions but that's normal. And in most places in the country, federal and city, county SWAT teams train together because they essentially have a common doctrine and common approaches to the problems.

VAN SUSTEREN: Bill, if the sheriff and the SWAT team knew at approximately 12:15 that the two killers were dead and if they had no information whether anyone else might be involved or whether there might be bombs or booby traps in that school, would you have recommended the SWAT team go in at that point at 12:15?

HENSHAW: Well, I think that all boils down to essentially what most after-action reports involve and that is who knew what and when did they know it. And then in developing a corporate knowledge base, if you will, essentially, did they realize the importance of what they knew at the time? I've conducted a number of after-action reports and, of course, now then we can say in retrospect, in 20-20 hindsight that, well, they knew this or they knew this or they should have known this. But I think that what was in the mind of the officers at the scene -- and of course, the SWAT team is not in charge of this. The SWAT team is just essentially a tactical arm, if you will, of what's going on there. And it was mentioned earlier that it was considered a hostage situation. I would have considered that a hostage situation. I believe there were 400-some people still in the school.

And then, also, it's a normal practice that when anybody comes out, whether it's a hostage bank robbery or something like that, there is an assumption that that person could be the perpetrator. That's happened. And so, you know, when somebody makes it to safety, you see that they're taken into custody. That's standard procedure.

COSSACK: Peter, Bill has said that he would have considered it a hostage situation. You have alleged in your complaint that it wasn't a hostage situation, in fact, they knew it wasn't a hostage situation, the police knew it wasn't a hostage situation. And, in fact, by calling it one, violated their own handbook.

GRENIER: Yes.

COSSACK: How do you defend that?

GRENIER: Well, I'm just relying on the sheriff department's own manual, which I assume was borne of the training from CLETA, the Colorado Law Enforcement Training Academy. A hostage situation -- and I may not have verbatim -- but the definition goes something like this: It's a situation where one barricades one's self with the use of a weapon or other object and barricades people and blocks them from exiting or from entering or otherwise blocks someone's exit or entry into a building.

The high-risk situation, on the other hand, which is exactly what we had here, is a situation which calls for special weapons and tactics, perhaps calls for counter sniping, diversionary devices, breaching equipment, as we know, all of which appeared on the scene. If you're hearing gunshots over the phone...

VAN SUSTEREN: Jim, let me...

COSSACK: Let me ask Bill a question.

Bill, what's the difference between a high-risk situation and a hostage situation in your mind? Bill Henshaw?

HENSHAW: ... Colorado and I'm in Georgia and I have no -- that's an argument I don't want to get into.

VAN SUSTEREN: All right, let me go to Jim.

HENSHAW: They're both high risk.

VAN SUSTEREN: Jim, does it -- when you look at this case, do you judge the sheriff and the SWAT team according to standards of a smaller community in Colorado or do you judge it by standards equal to that of what you would demand of the FBI under similar circumstances?

ROUSE: Well, this is a large metropolitan area we're talking about. We're not talking about a rural police department. To think that this type of thing could never happen in the Denver area is just naive. They should have been ready for what was basically a terrorist attack. This was a homicidal rampage. This was not a hostage situation.

VAN SUSTEREN: So there's no sort of room, at least in your thinking, that this SWAT team be held to a different standard from a more sophisticated SWAT team, for instance, the FBI in Washington or New York?

ROUSE: Well, SWAT teams are SWAT teams. They should all be trained the same way to react to the same type of situations. That's the purpose of this training that they go through. I think the sheriff's deputies have acknowledged that it was the first deputies on the scene that had to handle the situation and they were simply not trained to do that. The SWAT team didn't get there until my clients' children were dead.

COSSACK: All right, let's take a break. Several families of Columbine victims have lawsuits pending against the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department. Find out what hurdles lie ahead for these cases when we come back.

(BEGIN Q&A)

Q: On this day in 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously that racial segregation in schools is unconstitutional. What was the name of this famous decision?

A: Brown v. Board Of Education of Topeka, Kansas.

(END Q&A)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

COSSACK: The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department is named as a defendant in several lawsuits brought by the families of Columbine shooting victims. In one case, the plaintiff claims that a bullet from an officer at the crime scene killed one of the students.

Jim, how do you intend to prove your case? You know, part of your claim is that perhaps what's called friendly fire might have killed some of those students. I mean, this was a terrible situation where shots were being fired by Klebold and Harris. Isn't this, again, even if it was shot by the police, isn't this victims again of Klebold and Harris?

ROUSE: Well, it depends on the training that the police officers receive. It depends on what they were doing and what they knew. And like I said, the sheriff has stonewalled us on information in that regard. We don't have witness statements, we don't know what they've told the police department. We do have two witnesses who were never interviewed by the police department who place the shooting about 10 minutes later than what the police department claims that it is. We know where the body fell. We know what the autopsy report says. We know that two of the bullets were never recovered. That's consistent with our theory and the trajectories of the bullets. And at this point, that's all I can say. It's going to have to take more discovery.

VAN SUSTEREN: Peter, I want to clarify something for the benefit of the SWAT team. Was it -- did the SWAT team not want to go in, and was there difference of opinion as to what should be done within the SWAT team? I mean, who's actually accountable for when the SWAT team went in the building?

GRENIER: Yes. Under the protocols, it's basically geographical or territorial in nature as far as who asserts command and control. Jefferson County people -- Sheriff Stone, Kicbush (ph), Manwaring (ph), Walcher (ph), Dunaway (ph), the under sheriff -- they were by definition the people in command and control.

VAN SUSTEREN: Does that mean that if the SWAT team did want to go in and was told not to, that they couldn't? Is that what that means?

GRENIER: Yes. And we have witnesses who will testify that SWAT teams -- and I don't want to name which SWAT teams -- did affirmatively want to go in and start rescuing students and were affirmatively told, they were ordered not to by the command-and- control people.

VAN SUSTEREN: Why?

GRENIER: Well, we'd like to know that. We'd like to hear their explanation and we don't have one yet.

COSSACK: Now doesn't that, in a sense, cut both ways against your argument? I mean, if there was some that said go in and some that said didn't go in, I mean, doesn't that in a sense -- first of all, how do you hold the SWAT team liable then, I mean, if they were under the control of somebody else?

VAN SUSTEREN: You don't.

GRENIER: I don't hold the SWAT teams liable and I have not named any of the SWAT teams as defendants. I named the people in command and control and the county of -- Jefferson County and the sheriff's department. I hold them fully accountable for the actions or inactions of all of the SWAT teams.

VAN SUSTEREN: What time should they have gone in?

COSSACK: I was going to say, doesn't that go to the informational part of what this is all about? I mean, then you have to show that they knew at the time what you're alleging.

GRENIER: Oh, sure. I agree with you. And we have rock solid evidence that they knew everything about what was going on in Science Room 3 with Mr. Sanders.

VAN SUSTEREN: At what time do you think it was reasonable to send the SWAT team in?

GRENIER: Well, having read not all of the report, but from what I've read in the report, they had this make-shift or ad hoc SWAT team of about 12 people who apparently for whatever explanation didn't have their equipment with them. But as far as the reasonableness of the time within which they could go, reasonable minds should have gone, reasonable minds certainly could differ in the profession of being a SWAT team commander. But our point is that it should not have been the three or four hours from when Mr. Sanders was shot.

VAN SUSTEREN: That's all the time we have for today. Thanks to our guests and thank you for watching.

Today on "TALKBACK LIVE," sports utility vehicles. Is bigger better? That's at 3:00 p.m. Eastern time, noon Pacific.

COSSACK: And we'll be back tomorrow with another edition of BURDEN OF PROOF. We'll see you then.

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