District attorney releases Columbine gunman's juvenile records

Freedom of Information | Feature | November 6, 2002

    NMU         COLORADO         Freedom of Information         Nov 6, 2002    

District attorney releases Columbine gunman's juvenile records

  • Following a judge's order to open the records, the Jefferson County district attorney released the juvenile diversion program file for one of the two gunmen in the 1999 shooting at a Littleton, Colo., high school.

Jefferson County district attorney Dave Thomas released on Nov. 4 the diversion program file of Columbine gunman Eric Harris, following a judge's order to release the juvenile records for both gunmen, Harris and Dylan Klebold.

The juvenile records detail the 11 months Harris and Klebold spent in a diversion program the year before they fatally shot 13 people and themselves at Columbine High School on April 20,1999.

Jefferson County District Judge Brooke Jackson ordered the records to be released Oct. 30, citing the public need to examine the effectiveness of the diversion program.

"There is a legitimate interest in exploring publicly whether the diversion program somehow failed in this instance, or in the words of the legislative declaration, whether it might in some manner have been an ineffective program," Jackson said in his ruling.

The diversion program allows juvenile defendants to avoid detention and criminal records by participating in counseling and educational programs, making restitution and performing community service. Its goal is to "prevent further involvement of the juvenile or child in the formal legal system," according to the order written by Jackson.

Harris and Klebold participated in the program after being arrested for breaking into a van and stealing tools in 1998.

Records for Klebold have not yet been released, pending further review. Gary Lozow, the attorney representing Klebold's parents, said they are exploring the appellate option in response to the judge's ruling.

Harris' file revealed 71 pages of records including evaluations made by diversion officers, assessment forms, and school and community service progress reports.

The Rocky Mountain News published portions of Harris' records in its Oct. 5 edition. The newspaper did not say how it obtained the records; however, Harris' parents later commented that they did not object to the official release of their son's diversion program records.

In the portions of Harris' records that The Rocky Mountain News published, Harris told a diversion officer he had experienced homicidal and suicidal thoughts. Other feelings such as anger, depression, loneliness, obsessive thoughts, stress, suspicion and temper were also listed in the records.

Alan Gilbert, co-chair of the Columbine Open Records Task Force, had no comment as to whether he thought the records successfully revealed the effectiveness of the program. After careful review, the task force recommended to the judge that the diversion program records be opened.

"The truth is," Gilbert said, "you have to make that judgment for yourself. Our main responsibility is to get those records open."

According to district attorney spokesperson Pamela Russel, the diversion program did everything it was supposed to. Diversion officers met with Harris and Klebold twice a month, for about 15 minutes each session. Each session was documented with notes made by diversion officers.

Harris and Klebold did so well in the program that they were "successfully terminated a month before they were supposed to," Russel said.

According to Russel, the district attorney "absolutely supports the diversion program."

"It has a very low recidivism rate," she said. Of the 400 kids who participate in the program per year, only 8 to 11 percent get into trouble with the law again within two years of completing the program.

The situation with Harris and Klebold was an anomaly, Russel said. "These kids

didn't meet the criteria for troubled teens. They came from affluent neighborhoods, two-parent households, jobs, and no serious drug or alcohol problems. They were able to conceal what was going on inside them."

The one change that the diversion program has made since the Columbine tragedy is its meetings process. Harris and Klebold met with diversion officers together. Now, juveniles meet with diversion officers on an individual basis.

Another change involves more reporting with the school system. Schools are now notified when students are arrested.

The diversion program is effective, argued Russel. Its goal has always been "to divert kids out of the criminal justice system," and it has not failed yet.

(In Re Harris and Klebold) -- LF


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