Day 7 in Va. Tech negligence trial concludes

March 13, 2012 - 7:07 PM
Virginia Tech Lawsuit

Defense attorney William “Bill” Broaddus, left, holds an enlarged map of the Virginia Tech campus as vice president of student affairs, Ed Spencer, right, comments on it in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg, Va., Monday March 12 2012. Spencer was describing walking from his office on campus to a dorm room crime scene the morning of April 16, 2007. (AP Photo / The Roanoke Times, Matt Gentry)

CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. (AP) — The state rested Tuesday after witnesses in a wrongful death lawsuit testified that Virginia Tech officials acted properly on April 16, 2007, when a lone gunman killed 32 on the Blacksburg campus and then himself.

Circuit Judge William Alexander later adjourned the trial for the day and told jurors to return to court Wednesday to hear closing arguments and to begin their deliberations.

Attorneys for the state, the lone defendant in the civil trial, presented only a fraction of the 50 potential witnesses they had listed in court filings. Lawyers for the parents of two students slain in the attacks planned to present a rebuttal witness.

The defense called to the stand Virginia Tech officials, police and experts on campus security who all agreed that Tech police and school administrators did the right thing when they concluded the first two shootings were domestic and isolated. As a result, they delayed alerting students and faculty on campus because they believed the dorm attack was targeted and the gunman did not pose a threat to the wider campus.

Less than three hours later, Seung-Hui Cho chained the doors to Norris Hall and killed 30 students and faculty in the classroom building. He then killed himself.

University officials have said there was no way to anticipate the deadliest campus shootings in modern U.S. history.

The parents of students Julia K. Pryde and Erin Nicole Peterson disagree. They persisted in bringing the lawsuit because they believe their daughters would have survived Cho's attack if the campus had known of the first two shootings, which ultimately resulted in the deaths of both victims.

Attorneys for the parents, who are each seeking $100,000, also contend President Charles W. Steger and other university officials attempted to cover their missteps. They have denied that.

Steger's reputation was the focus of state questioning Tuesday after attorneys for the parents suggested during their presentation that Steger attempted to cover missteps of university officials on the morning of April 16.

State attorney William Broaddus asked Tech's legal counsel about Steger's reputation for truthfulness.

"His reputation is excellent," testified Kay K. Heidbreder, who said she had known Steger for 30 years.

Robert T. Hall, an attorney for the parents, had several sharp exchanges with Heidbreder about corrections to Tech's official version of the shootings. He also questioned Steger's chief of staff, Kim O'Rourke, about her loyalty to her boss and whether she would face consequences if she disagreed with Steger.

Steger, Hall asked, "could terminate your employment for any reason?"

After stating repeatedly she worked for Virginia Tech and the state, O'Rourke acknowledged, "Yes, it could happen."

Attorneys for the state and the plaintiffs met privately for three hours to work on instructions jurors, who began hearing the case March 5. The issue involves what threat level university officials should have heeded on the morning of April 16 in alerting the campus — imminent or foreseeable.

With the approval of opposing attorneys, Alexander pushed back closing arguments and jury deliberations on what he called "a rather complicated case" until Wednesday morning.

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. The school is appealing.

The Prydes and the Petersons were the only eligible families who didn't accept their share of an $11 million state settlement.

While the damages are capped at $100,000, jurors will not be told of the cap before they begin their deliberations.

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