Page last updated at 18:01 GMT, Wednesday, 16 September 2009 19:01 UK

Bomb plot case 'a waste of money'

Ross McKnight and Matthew Swift gave their reaction outside court

Authorities have been criticised for pursuing a case against two teenagers who were cleared of planning a bombing at their school in Greater Manchester.

A jury took 45 minutes to acquit Ross McKnight, 16, and Matthew Swift, 18, of planning to murder teachers and pupils at Audenshaw High School.

The pair had always maintained the plot, said to be inspired by the US Columbine massacre, was a "fantasy".

Roderick Carus QC, for Ross McKnight, said the case was a waste of money.

Both teenagers, from Denton, Greater Manchester, had denied conspiracy to murder and conspiracy to cause explosions.

Journal entries

They were alleged to have been obsessed with the Columbine killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who murdered 12 students and a teacher before turning their guns on themselves in Colorado on 20 April 1999.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) based much of the Manchester Crown Court case against the teenagers on journals and diaries they kept.

These contained details of a plan termed "Project Rainbow", along with maps and plans of the school.

Both Harris and Klebold had kept similar documents before their attack.

Greater Manchester Police (GMP) flew two detectives to Colorado ahead of the trial to talk to Columbine lead investigator Kate Battan, who was listed as a witness in the Manchester case but never called.

Audenshaw School
As the jury's verdict demonstrates, this was a waste of public money, hundreds of thousands of pounds
Roderick Carus QC

No explosives or firearms were discovered following the arrest of the teenagers in March, which came after Ross McKnight made a drunken phone call to a female friend boasting about carrying out Project Rainbow.

Defence counsel said the journals were the scribblings of teenagers with "over-active imaginations" and the defendants themselves dismissed their writings as "fantasy".

Speaking after his son's acquittal, Ray McKnight - a serving GMP officer - said he never doubted his son was innocent.

He said: "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."

Decision 'respected'

After the verdicts, Mr Carus was scathing about the prosecution case and said the teenagers should have just been given "a slap on the wrists".

"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.

"Bearing in mind their ages it's farcical to think that this was ever a serious design."

Head teacher Stephen Turner: "They were perfectly normal, ordinary boys at school"

But John Lord, reviewing lawyer at the Crown Prosecution Service, defended the decision to prosecute the teenagers.

"The case brought against Matthew Swift and Ross McKnight was, we believe, one that was as equally strong as serious," he said.

The BBC's Home Affairs Correspondent Danny Shaw said it was the Attorney General, Lady Scotland QC, who gave final approval for the case to proceed.

Asst Ch Con Terry Sweeney, of Greater Manchester Police (GMP), said senior officers and the CPS felt it was in the public interest to take the case to court.

Class re-evaluation

"In this case the jury took the decision not to convict and we respect their decision," she said.

The head teacher of Audenshaw school, Stephen Turner, said he could not speculate on the decision taken by the CPS.

"Clearly the police investigated thoroughly and presented information to the CPS and that decision was taken by them and we respect that decision," said Mr Turner.

"Our experience of both of them was that they were perfectly normal, ordinary boys, clearly both of them achieved well at their exams."

During the trial it emerged Matthew Swift's interest in the US massacre was sparked after being shown the Michael Moore documentary, Bowling for Columbine, in a school general studies class.

Mr Turner said the school would now re-evaluate what was shown in the classes.

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