It is the video the world was never meant to see: the evidence, collected by firefighters, of the horrors of Columbine High School in Colorado in the aftermath of last April's rampage, in which two seniors killed a teacher and 12 of their classmates before turning their weapons on themselves.
The macabre footage dwells on the chaotic disorder, the smashed glass and overturned chairs, the computer terminals shoved aside or riddled with bullet holes. It also zooms in on the bloodstains left on the floor after the bodies had been removed, identifying each one with a name tag scrawled in black marker pen on cardboard.
Clearly, after more than a year of over-intrusive media coverage and grieving constantly interrupted by the glare of publicity, this is not material the victims' families would want to see in the public domain.
But last week it was released - not by some enterprising media outlet claiming a great scoop, nor even by some Internet entrepreneur hoping to make a fast buck, but by the very investigators who shot the footage in the first place. To the outrage and consternation of almost everyone touched by the shootings, the Jefferson County attorney's office not only made the video available to the public, but it overlaid the footage with a soft rock soundtrack, MTV style, and took payment of $25 for each one.
"For the first time, I saw my daughter dragged to the fire engine," said a stunned Beth Nimmo, mother of 15-year-old victim Rachel Scott. "I didn't need to see that - nobody else needs to see that. I'm outraged. It does so much harm to the victims and their families. I don't see any good coming out of this."
The videos sold at lightning speed - 40 in the first hour, more than 100 in the first two days, with another 500 on order for sale this week. But with parents, teachers, local authorities and news organisations expressing unanimous revulsion (in an uncharacteristic act of restraint, television stations showed either heavily edited versions of the tape or boycotted it altogether), the question on everyone's lips was: what were the investigators thinking?
The answers go right to the heart of the recriminations and sordid politics which have overwhelmed the grieving process in the affluent suburban community around Columbine. Ten days ago, just as the injured and the bereaved were coming together to offer prayers of peace and healing on the day of the anniversary, the parents of five murder victims fired off a series of lawsuits against the county and the police alleging gross negligence both before and after the shootings and accusing a police sharpshooter of killing one of the teenagers by mistake.
One of the demands made in these and other lawsuits was full access to the evidence unearthed by the investigation so the plaintiffs could substantiate their explosive claims. Almost immediately, a county court ordered the release of the surveillance video - an order that, interpreted more sensitively, might have restricted access to the families themselves.
The decision to put the video on sale, with the soundtrack, looked suspiciously like an act of revenge, as one of the lawyers who filed suit was quick to point out. "I'd say that they're doing it as a spiteful slap in the face of the families," the lawyer, Barry Arrington, said.
The belated explanations of the county attorney, Frank Hutfless, have done little to quell the overwhelming anger. He said the music was added, along with edited excerpts of television news footage, to make the video suitable for firefighter training seminars and had been used successfully around the country. To tamper with the tape would have violated the judge's release order, he argued. As for the sale price, that was imposed purely to reimburse the county for its production expenses.
Mr Arrington and his colleagues were still considering their response to these remarks as the weekend approached, but the singers whose music was used without authorisation made no bones about their feelings.
"The thought of adding music, any music, to these images for whatever reason is sick, and the idea of profiting from selling someone else's tragedy is pitiful and cruel," said Sarah McLachlan, whose song "I Will Remember You" is played over scenes from the cafeteria where the shooting started. "The kids and families of Columbine have been through more than most of us could bear. They deserve our deepest compassion and hope that they might someday find some peace and joy again in their lives."
The record companies representing both Ms McLachlan and Cheryl Wheeler, whose anti-gun protest song "If It Were Up To Me" accompanies images of the library where 10 people were killed, have demanded the immediate removal of their material. The school district, which originally gave permission for the video footage to be shot, was also taking legal advice on possible infringement of its rights.
The fiasco has only added further doubt about the competence and good faith of local law enforcement. One Columbine parent who has petitioned for the removal of Sheriff John Stone said last week that the video, aside from its tastelessness, illustrated the slowness with which police came to the rescue of the wounded trapped inside the school. One of the shooting victims, teacher Dave Sanders, bled to death waiting for help.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, publication of the official investigation into the shootings has been postponed again and again. One reason some of the parents have sued has been to put pressure on the authorities to explain their precise role and admit any negligence or poor judgement. It promises to be the ugliest sort of legal battle.Reuse content