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Jury finds Va. Tech negligent in '07 shootings

Presiding Judge William Alexander reads instructions to the jury in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg Va. on Wednesday March 14 2012. Jurors began deliberating Wednesday over a lawsuit filed by the parents of two students slain in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre claiming school officials botched their response when the first reports came in that a gunman was on campus. Attorneys for the university have countered that there was no way to anticipate the man who committed those first two killings April 16 in a dormitory would carry out the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Presiding Judge William Alexander reads instructions to the jury in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg Va. on Wednesday March 14 2012. Jurors began deliberating Wednesday over a lawsuit filed by the parents of two students slain in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre claiming school officials botched their response when the first reports came in that a gunman was on campus. Attorneys for the university have countered that there was no way to anticipate the man who committed those first two killings April 16 in a dormitory would carry out the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. (AP Photo/The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry)
By Steve Szkotak
Associated Press / March 14, 2012
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CHRISTIANSBURG, Va.—The parents of two Virginia Tech students killed in a 2007 campus massacre worked for years to prove university officials were negligent for waiting to warn students of a gunman on campus, and a jury agreed with them on Wednesday.

It took jurors 3 1/2 hours to find that university officials botched their response to the April 16, 2007, massacre that left 33 people -- including the gunman -- dead. The jury determined in the wrongful death lawsuit against the state that the parents of Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson each deserved $4 million. The award likely will be sharply reduced because Virginia law requires such awards to be capped at $100,000.

The lawsuit was the last pending litigation over the mass shootings and it's not clear if any additional lawsuits will be filed. The state is expected to appeal the verdict, as it did a separate fine handed down by federal education officials. No criminal charges were brought in the shootings.

"We were looking for truth for a long time," Harry Pryde said outside the courthouse that's less than 10 miles from Tech's Blacksburg campus. "We persevered and we got some truth today."

After the verdict, the parents said their persistence is what their daughters would have wanted. They were the only eligible families to reject their share of an $11 million dollar settlement in 2008, instead taking the state to court in a wrongful death lawsuit.

The $11 million settlement was split between 24 families, excluding other disbursements such as $1.9 million set aside in a hardship fund. The state could not immediately provide a per-family breakdown of the settlement.

The families who sued the state, however, said getting answers mattered the most. They argued that lives could have been spared if school officials had moved more quickly to alert the campus after the first two victims were shot in a dorm. The massacre ended later in the morning with the deaths 31 more people, including the gunman, in a classroom building.

"When you know that something is right you're not deterred from your course," said Celeste Peterson, whose daughter Erin died in the mass shooting that was the deadliest in modern U.S. history. "We wanted the truth from the very beginning and we got it. All I know is today we got what we wanted."

The state, which was the lone defendant in the case, argued the university did all that it could with the information available at the time. President Charles W. Steger and other university officials said they initially believed the first two shootings were isolated instances of domestic violence, based on what police investigators told them.

"The university's contention has been all along, to quote president Steger, `We did everything we could do,'" said Robert T. Hall, an attorney for the parents. "Obviously the jury didn't buy that."

The verdict was met by sobs from Celeste Peterson, while her husband Grafton appeared to quietly weep at the plaintiff's table. They later embraced each other. The Prydes were stoic, as they were most of the eight-day trial.

Circuit Judge William Alexander said it was the hardest case he had been a part of.

"My heart goes out to all of you," he said to the families of victims.

Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said after the verdict that the school would review the case with the attorney general before deciding on any further options.

"We are disappointed with today's decision and stand by our long-held position that the administration and law enforcement at Virginia Tech did their absolute best with the information available on April 16, 2007," Owczarski said in a statement.

The attorney general's office said it was discussing "our options" with the Tech administration on an appeal and maintained trial evidence "established that it was the unanimous decision of three law enforcement agencies that the mass shooting was simply not foreseeable."

One of the state's attorneys, Peter R. Messitt, said before the verdict that Tech officials could not be expected to anticipate the killing spree, calling the slaughter unprecedented "in the history of higher education" and "one of the most horrible days in America."

"What happened at Norris Hall was not reasonably foreseeable," he told jurors during closing arguments.

Outside of court, Hall disagreed: "It's so clear that a warning should have been given. The amount of the verdict speaks to that end."

During the trial, the attorneys for the Prydes and Petersons portrayed campus police as leaping to the conclusion that the first two victims were shot by a jealous boyfriend, and that the gunman was not a threat to others.

They presented evidence that campus leaders, including Steger, heeded the police conclusion without question, then waited 2-1/2 hours before sending a campus-wide warning that a "shooting incident" had occurred. It did not say a gunman was still at large.

Police were pursuing the boyfriend of one of the dorm shooting victims as a "person of interest" at the expense of a campus-wide alert, the plaintiffs' attorneys said.

Police stopped the boyfriend as he approached the Blacksburg campus and were questioning him as shots rang out at Norris Hall, where student Seung-Hui Cho chained shut the doors to the building and killed the students and faculty. He then killed himself.

Tech officials issued a specific warning that a "gunman is loose on campus" through emails to 37,000 at 9:50 a.m., nearly 10 minutes after Cho began the Norris slaughter.

The parents' attorneys also accused Steger and other administrators of trying to cover up their missteps by building official timelines that suggested they reacted more aggressively to the first shootings. Tech administrators said mistakes in the timelines were made in the fog of a horrific tragedy.

The state presented witnesses, including experts in campus security, who said Tech police and administrators acted properly when they concluded the dorm shootings were domestic. The shootings occurred in an isolated area of the dorm, and the victims were a man and a woman clad in their undergarments and sleepwear.

Steger testified that he delayed sending a specific warning to avoid a panic and to allow the university to notify the victims' parents. He said the advice to delay a specific warning came from a member of his Policy Group who has since died.

S. Daniel Carter, a campus safety advocate, called the verdict a "vindication for all of us who have said more should have been done to protect the Virginia Tech campus." The trial, he added, was also "a vital opportunity to set the record straight about exactly what happened, and when."

A state panel that investigated the shootings concluded that officials erred in not sending an alert earlier. The lag in issuing a campus warning also brought Virginia Tech a $55,000 fine from the U.S. Education Department, which the school is appealing.

As far as Wednesday's jury award, Hall said that only actions by the governor, attorney general or General Assembly could raise it above $100,000.

Some parents have questioned why no one at Tech was held accountable for their actions, and Hall said the verdict sends a message to the university's board.

"The board of visitors will not be able to ignore the verdict," he said. "How they react to it is up to them."

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.

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