UK teens cleared of school massacre plot

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Thursday, September 17, 2009

Two teenagers in the United Kingdom have been acquitted of planning a high school massacre similar to the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in the United States. Police and the Crown Prosecution Service have been criticised for bringing the case to trial.

Matthew Swift, 18, and Ross McKnight, 16, were cleared of accusations they planned a copycat attack at their school in Manchester to coincide with the April 20 anniversary of the original mass shooting. They had been charged with conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause explosions likely to endanger life or cause serious injury to property. Swift and McKnight have spent the last six months behind bars on remand, Swift in prison and McKnight a young offenders institute.

Police had thought they had found a criminal plot when they were alerted after a girl received a drunken phone call from one boy talking about a school shooting. They discovered a second girl had received a text saying "If I ever text you not to come into school don't question it, just don't go in." The pair were found to be in possession of The Anarchist Cookbook and a BB gun . No guns or explosives were found even though the prosecution alleged to have video footage of the pair manufacturing explosives.

The prosecution case further focused on diary entries and plans talking of how they would perpetrate the "greatest massacre ever." "Audenshaw high," wrote Swift "will be no more. Unlike Columbine, my propane bomb will actually fucking explode and I will walk from classroom to classroom killing the fuck out of everybody, then maybe people will learn."

The 2007 plans were alleged by prosecutors to have included a diversion bomb away from the school, which was the main target, even though they also suggested attacks on several other buildings. Swift explained that his writings were "naive and pathetic ways to channel my teenage angst. I was 16 with a vivid imagination." The defense had focused on the notion that the plot was pure fantasy.

Supporting this was testimony, including that of McKnight's police officer father Ray, that the duo had plenty of other weird and wonderful schemes. Much as the shooting idea had come from Michael Moore's documentary Bowling for Columbine, so too had they discussed living off the land in Alaska after watching Into the Wild. Other ideas included a winter mission to climb Ben Nevis and launching a dinghy service on local canal routes.

The five men and seven women that comprised the jury agreed, and took just 45 minutes to reject the charges. They even waited for defence counsel so they could wave and smile at them. It was, according to McKnight's lawyer Roderick Carus QC, perhaps the "quickest acquittal of this apparent gravity" he had ever witnessed. He said the case was a weak one that should never have gone to court. One of the lawyers on the case described the teens as victims of an "unnecessary, heavy-handed prosecution" that was a waste of several hundred thousand pounds.

British officers working the case flew to the United States to speak with those that worked upon the Columbine massacre. Later, the former head of the Columbine investigation traveled to the UK.

Ray McKnight did not comment on the decision to try the case, but he did say both defendants had experienced "purgatory" and "absolute agony" while imprisoned. "We are all just incredibly relieved," he said, stating that he never doubted his son's innocence for a moment. His son read the following statement outside Manchester Crown Court: "I would like to make it clear that at no time was any person put at risk. This was just a fantasy. This was never a reality. I would just like to say that during my time in custody, I have taken my GCSEs. I hope that my wish to join the army has not been harmed."


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