UK Teens Cleared of Columbine-Inspired Murder Plot
The jury took only 45 minutes to clear Ross McKnight, 16, and Matthew Swift, 18, of plotting an attack at their high school just east of the northwestern English city of Manchester on the 10th anniversary of the U.S. killings.
The 12-member panel, made up of seven women and five men, accepted the teens' testimony that they never intended to harm anyone. Jurors took the unusual step of waiting outside a Manchester court to wave and smile at a defense attorney after the verdicts.
"This was just a fantasy," McKnight told reporters after his acquittal. "This was never a reality."
Prosecutor Peter Wright said the teens planned to emulate the school attack carried out by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who killed 12 students, a teacher and themselves in a shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999.
But British police never found any explosives or weapons in the case - despite the swaggering promises.
"We will walk into school and at the end of it no one will walk out alive," McKnight wrote in his diary, according to prosecutors. It would, he wrote, be the "greatest massacre ever."
Notes found in a safe in Swift's bedroom promised: "Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold will rise again."
Police were alerted after McKnight drunkenly called a girl and confessed to the purported plot. The teens were arrested in March, and detectives said they found cell phone camera footage of what they said was the pair making explosives, as well as a cache of extremist literature, a bomb-making manual and a map of the school.
The attack at the Audenshaw School was purportedly timed for the 10th anniversary of the U.S. massacre. But it was among other suggested targets, including a shopping center, an Ikea store, and a stadium.
Defense attorney Roderick Carus ridiculed the idea that Swift and McKnight had been serious about any of these plans, noting that the teens had also been excited by the idea of moving to Alaska and living off the land after watching the movie "Into the Wild."
When questioned by Carus about his bomb-making plans, Swift said he'd received dismal grades in chemistry.
McKnight, whose father Ray is a police officer, testified that his interest in the school rampage was piqued when he saw Michael Moore's documentary "Bowling for Columbine" with other students.
He dismissed his journal entries as "intriguing nonsense" and said he was probably angry at the time. His father testified that his son was full of hare-brained schemes.
Swift said his writings and plans, drawn up in 2007, were "naive and pathetic ways to channel my teenage angst."
"I was 16 with a vivid imagination," he testified.
The acquittal is an embarrassment for prosecutors and police, some of whom traveled to the U.S. before the trial to confer with detectives who investigated the Columbine killings. Prosecutors defended their decision to bring the case to trial, although they said they respected the jury's decision.
Ray McKnight said he never doubted his son's innocence.
"We are all just incredibly relieved," he said.
Ross said he had taken his high school exams behind bars and said he hoped the trial had not damaged his chances of joining the military.
"I would now like to put this behind me," he said.