The parents of Columbine High School shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, along with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department, are fighting a Colorado newspaper's request for recordings the boys made before their deadly attack.
The Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday in the case, which seeks to resolve whether material seized by police using a search warrant becomes public record.
The Denver Post has asked that the so-called "basement tapes" seized at the killers' homes by the Jefferson County sheriff -- including videos, audio recordings and diaries of Eric Harris and his father, Wayne -- be deemed criminal justice records under the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act, since they were used in the course of a criminal investigation. Under state law, the public has the right to request access to records maintained by a law enforcement agency.
"The public ought to have a right to request access to those records, whether or not they're ultimately given such access," said attorney Steven D. Zansberg, who represents The Post. "That doesn't mean they have a right to see the footage in all cases, and that's where the discretion of the custodian and the balancing of competing public interests come into play, but these records clearly fall within the statutory definition, since they were maintained and kept by the sheriff for use in investigating the crimes committed at Columbine."
Attorneys for the Harris and Klebold families, as well as the sheriff's department, argued that a decision in favor of the Post would undermine everyone's privacy and property rights and said that such records, even if used by a law-enforcement agency, are simply off-limits to the public.
"Under this ruling, one's most private and intimate records would now be fair game for the press, a disgruntled business associate, an ex-wife and anyone to leaf through simply because a search warrant was granted," Assistant Jefferson County Attorney Lily Oeffler wrote in a court filing.
Wayne and Katherine Harris and Thomas and Susan Klebold say they also fear the release of their sons' tapes may set off copycat attacks and glorify the April 20, 1999, shooting that left 12 students, a teacher and both shooters dead and stands as the nation's deadliest school shooting.
Zansberg said the Post has only asked to inspect the tapes and has no intention of putting the materials on a Web site or on television. However, that doesn't mean others can't do so, he added.
The attorney added that the public has the right to scrutinize the materials to assess whether the sheriff acted properly and to come to a conclusion as to why the sheriff suddenly changed his stance on his final report, stating there was no evidence indicating that anyone had any prior knowledge of the killers' plans.
In the days following Columbine, Sheriff John Stone had held a press conference and declared that he believed the parents of the shooters must have known what their sons were up to and should be held accountable.
"Without being able to see the documents the sheriff reviewed, it's hard for the public to understand that change of position," Zansberg said.
The court is not expected to rule on the matter until 2006.