Police and prosecutors were strongly criticised today for pursuing the case against two teenagers cleared of plotting a Columbine-style massacre at their own school.
A jury took just 45 minutes to clear Matthew Swift, 18, and Ross McKnight, 16, of planning to murder teachers and pupils at Audenshaw High School in Greater Manchester.
Following the verdicts, the barrister who defended one of the youngsters said it was an "unnecessary, heavy-handed prosecution" and an expensive waste of public money.
McKnight's father Ray, a serving police officer, said both his son and Swift had gone through "purgatory" and "absolute agony" after spending six months remanded in custody.
The prosecution claimed the best friends from Denton, Greater Manchester, were obsessed with Columbine killers Eric Harris, 18, and Dylan Klebold, 17, who murdered 12 students and a teacher and then killed themselves at their high school in Colorado in 1999.
It was alleged Swift and McKnight had planned a similar rampage which they named Project Rainbow and agreed to commit mass murder on the 10th anniverary of Columbine on April 20 this year. They were also said to have planned to plant a diversionary bomb at the Crown Point North shopping centre in Denton.
Much of the case heard at Manchester Crown Court was based on diaries kept by the pair which were full of hate-filled rants against the school and society.
The defence teams argued that the diary entries were merely the teenage scribblings of two youngsters with over-active imaginations.
No explosives or firearms were discovered following their arrest in March when police were tipped off that McKnight made a drunken phone call to a female friend in which he boasted about carrying out Project Rainbow.
The police were so convinced the pair were scheming to re-enact Columbine that they decided to fly two detectives to Colorado ahead of the trial to question the homicide department which investigated the killings.
The Columbine lead investigator, Kate Battan, was then flown over to Manchester and was mooted as a possible prosecution witness but she was never called to give evidence.
Unusually, outside court, the entire jury of seven women and five men waited for the defendants to leave the building as they waved to and smiled at Roderick Carus QC, who had successfully defended McKnight.
Mr Carus launched a scathing broadside against the Crown Prosecution Service for bringing what he termed such a "weak case" to the criminal courts.
He said: "Why could they not take them to one side, slap them on the wrists and say 'Don't be silly boys, now go off and enjoy your careers in the Army'?
"I think this was an unnecessary, heavy-handed prosecution against two young lads who could have been dealt with in a more sensitive way.
"As the jury's verdict demonstrates, this was a waste of public money, hundreds of thousands of pounds.
"It is a unique case. That was perhaps the quickest acquittal of this apparent gravity I have ever had the pleasure to experience."
He added: "There is a generation gap here, perhaps because we don't understand how young people live on their computers, that we fail to understand.
"Young people live on their computers; whereas we used to doodle on notepads, they will click on websites.
"Ross McKnight was writing nasty things. He's a perfectly happy, balanced lad - it didn't reflect his personality.
"I would hope the prosecuting authorities make more allowances for the frivolity of youth in future."
John Lord, reviewing lawyer at the Crown Prosecution Service, defended the decision to prosecute the teenagers.
He said: "Our judicial system is designed to test fully those cases that are placed before it.
"The case brought against Matthew Swift and Ross McKnight was, we believe, one that was as equally strong as serious.
"As such we felt it was in the public interest to ensure that the charges against the defendants were given the full scrutiny of a jury."
Both teenagers denied conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause explosions likely to endanger life or cause serious injury to property between November 2007 and March 15 this year.
Outside court, McKnight's police officer father refused to comment when asked whether the police and CPS should ever have brought the matter to court.
His son has spent the last six months in Hindley Young Offenders Institute, where he had to sit his GCSEs.
Swift has spent the last six months in Strangeways.
Both have never been in trouble with the police before but were classified as Category A prisoners because of the serious nature of the charges.
Asked how both boys had coped, Mr McKnight replied: "It's been purgatory, absolute agony. Neither have been in trouble with the police before and have been in jail for the last six months."
In a statement, McKnight said: "I would like to make it clear that at no time was any person put at risk either at Audenshaw High School or Crown Point North Shopping Centre.
"This was just a fantasy. This was never a reality."
Swift said: "I would like to thank my family, friends and legal team who continued to believe in me and who have supported me through this difficult time. I would now like to put this behind me."
Swift, who left Audenshaw lower sixth-form last summer, and McKnight both applied to join the Army two months before their arrest.
Swift told the jury his interest in Columbine was sparked by his own school while he was studying his A-levels when pupils were shown the Michael Moore documentary about the rampage, Bowling For Columbine.
The alleged "plot" only came to light after McKnight, high on drink and drugs, made a late night phone call to a girl he was fond of, allegedly "confessing" to the plan. She told her mother and police were called in.
It was then that officers found their journals and diaries during raids at their homes in Denton, Greater Manchester, on March 14.
The documents included page after page of "rantings" and talk of Project Rainbow's official start date, when plans and maps of the school were made in November 2007.
The youngsters were bailed but then re-arrested on March 21 when detectives discovered video clips on Swift's mobile phone of the pair apparently experimenting with explosives.Reuse content