Judge dismisses most claims against sheriff in Columbine lawsuits


Tuesday, November 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


DENVER (AP) _ A federal judge ruled Tuesday that sheriff's officials can be sued over the case of a Columbine High teacher who bled to death in the 1999 massacre, saying law officers callously failed to reach him until hours after the shooting had stopped.

U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock said Jefferson County sheriff's officials demonstrated ``a deliberate indifference towards Dave Sanders' plight shocking to the conscience of this federal court.''

However, the judge threw out the eight other lawsuits brought against sheriff's officials and school administrators over the shooting rampage. He said authorities were confronted with ``an unprecedented and rapidly evolving violent situation.''

Rescuers did not reach Sanders, 47, until about five hours after the massacre was over. The judge noted that authorities knew the teen-age gunmen were dead about 3 1/2 hours before they reached Sanders. They also knew where he was and knew that he was critically wounded, Babcock said.

The judge said there is sufficient evidence that sheriff's officials ``acted recklessly in conscious disregard of the risk that Dave Sanders' survivable wounds would prove fatal'' if they delayed help from reaching him.

Sanders' relatives are suing for unspecified damages, alleging sheriff's officials held back their SWAT team and also prevented other authorities and private citizens from rescuing him.

Peter Grenier, the lawyer for Sanders' daughter Angela, said the ruling was bittersweet.

``It's bitter in a sense for Angela, because it certainly confirms the viability of her claims that law enforcement officers' actions actually were a cause of her father's death,'' he said. ``But we're very pleased the judge followed the black letter of the law and allowed the case to go forward.''

Calls to the sheriff's office and school district officials were not immediately returned.

Acting Jefferson County Attorney Bill Tuthill said the rulings overall came as a relief. He said the blame rests solely on the teen-age gunmen.

``No matter how sincere the need to exact retribution for the lives that were lost, we cannot hold innocent police officers responsible for the actions of cold-blooded killers,'' Tuthill said.

Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shot and killed 12 fellow students and a teacher and wounded more than two dozen others, the committed suicide on April 20, 1999, at the high school near Littleton.

Victims' relatives and survivors sued, alleging the sheriff's office and school administrators failed to investigate threats and crimes by the two gunmen a year before the rampage and botched their response.

In eight of those cases, the judge basically agreed with sheriff's department and school officials who argued that they were shielded from liability by state governmental-immunity laws, which give them wide leeway in how they do their jobs.

``The sheriff defendants were confronted with an unprecedented and rapidly evolving violent situation, reasonable persons could not conclude that the sheriff defendants' conduct was so extreme in degree, as to be `atrocious' and `utterly intolerable,''' Babcock wrote.

In another of the nine decisions, the judge wrote: ``Holding police officers liable in hindsight for every injurious consequence of their actions would paralyze the functions of law enforcement.''

James Rouse, a lawyer for several victims' families, was disappointed in the decision. ``We're in a situation now where we may never know what happened at Columbine,'' he said.

One of the plaintiffs, Evan Todd, 18, who was wounded during the attack, said he was not sure if he would appeal.

``I'm just going to keep striving, moving on in my life. I can't dwell on it forever, but I'll never forget it,'' he said. ``This just shows that if police are not going to go in a school to protect children, why would they protect anybody?''