Remembering tough judge William Erickson -- and a nasty cover-up

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Former Colorado Chief Justice William Erickson, 1924-2010
William Erickson, who passed away this week at the age of 85, will long be remembered for his remarkable 25 years on the Colorado Supreme Court and a host of other accomplishments. But he will also be known for his most abysmal failure -- the Columbine Review Commission he headed, which was supposed to get to the bottom of the 1999 school massacre but never dove deep enough.

I remember Erickson's beaming, unflappable management of the panel's public hearings, at which he praised law enforcement officers for being big enough to come down and talk about what they knew. Unfortunately, the officers who showed up didn't have any of the answers to the really important questions -- about what school officials and sheriff's officers knew about the killers before the massacre, key command decisions made in response to the attack, and the cover-up that followed. As Jefferson County Sheriff John Stone and others ducked his requests to testify, you could see Erickson becoming more petulant as he realized that the governor's blue-ribbon commission was just supposed to make a few policy recommendations, not get to the heart of what went wrong.

When it came time to issue the commission's findings in 2001, Erickson took the occasion to blast Stone and others. But the report itself was quite mild; it would be another three years before much of the deceit and ineptitude by county officials and cops would be exposed, and no one would ever be held truly accountable for the whole shameful episode.

Privately, Erickson would later remark that he should have insisted on getting subpoena power before taking the job. For all its limitations, his panel gave grieving families at least some information they didn't have before -- and served as a springboard for further inquiry.

Still, it's intriguing to think about what might have happened if the commission hadn't been toothless. Erickson was very much a product of his time -- a 1950s straight-arrow who'd worked in mines and didn't tolerate nonsense or disrespect for the law. He could have made a pretty good hash of all those equivocating bureaucrats trying to keep their careers from getting mired in the bloody aftermath of Columbine, and it would have been something to see him do it.

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