VaTech parents seek answers in trial 5 years later
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The hours leading to the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history and the actions of Virginia Tech administrators will be replayed in a Christiansburg courtroom when the parents of two students slain in the April 2007 massacre press their legal effort to hold school officials accountable.
During the trial that begins Monday, Attorney Robert Hall said he'll call Tech President Charles Steger and other top university officials to explain their actions the day 33 were killed on the Blacksburg campus, including the gunman. Hall said the parents want an apology for what he calls the university's botched efforts after the two first killings occurred. He said he has new evidence that reveals further missteps.
"They want President Steger to say, 'I'm sorry. I'm so sorry for the death of your daughters,'" Hall said.
The lawsuits originally sought $10 million for the wrongful deaths of Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson, but the damages are now capped at $100,000 for each of their parents. The state is the lone defendant in the case, which has been scaled back from the lawsuit originally filed two years after the deadly shootings on Tech's Blacksburg campus.
Among the other 20-plus witnesses Hall plans to call will be students who survived the shooting rampage, the chief of Tech's police force and other university officials. The government is expected to call twice the number of witnesses during the trial that is likely to last a week.
Virginia Tech and Steger, among others, have been removed as defendants in the case.
Hall is expected to drill into the minutes between the slaying of two students in a dorm shortly after 7 a.m. on April 16 and the actions of university officials to alert the campus. An email informed the approximately 30,000 students on campus more than two hours later — after gunman Seung-Hui Cho had killed 30 in Norris Hall, a classroom building. He then killed himself.
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 cost Virginia Tech a $55,000 fine from the U.S. Education Department. The school is appealing.
Hall said he will present evidence at the trial that Steger and Larry Hincker, a Tech spokesman and the face of the university during the ordeal, not only failed to properly warn students, but later tried to cover up their actions during the morning of the shootings.
"Dr. Steger and the university will have their image damaged when some of the evidence I have proffered to the judge comes out," Hall said. He said he will present evidence that will be "revelatory about how they tried to cover it up."
A spokesman for Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli said the claim officials attempted to cover up their actions that morning is "simply false, and the hearings will bear that out.
"Virginia Tech officials were dealing with an unimaginable and horrific tragedy and responded as well as anyone could be expected to under the circumstances," the spokesman, Brian Gottstein, said in an email.
The Prydes and the Petersens said in a statement released by Hall that the university had a duty to protect and "ensure the safety of the students on campus" by alerting them to the shootings in the dorm.
"Our daughters and the other students and faculty were entitled to that information too and would be alive today if that information had been shared," they said in the statement. "It should have been automatic for Virginia Tech administrators to warn the campus when there's a gunman on the loose."
The Prydes and the Petersons were the only eligible families who didn't accept their share of an $11 million state settlement.
Attorneys representing the state declined to be interviewed for this story. In a filing to dismiss the case, they said the lawsuit is misdirected.
"The perpetrator of this crime and, thus, the person responsible was Cho," the state told the court in the filing. "This case is about what legal duties and exposure to liability will be imposed on Virginia's public universities. If the plaintiffs prevail, such duties and exposure will go beyond anything currently recognized by Virginia law."
In a statement, Tech said the lawsuit is "without merit."
"The facts and law ultimately will sustain our long-standing position that the university's leaders acted appropriately in the events leading up to, during, and after the tragic events of April 16, 2007," spokesman Mark Owczarski said in the statement.
Selection of a seven-person jury is expected to begin Monday followed by opening statements.
Andrew Goddard, whose son Colin survived his gunshot wounds, will attend the trial.
"I still think there's more to come out," he said. "I think there is a need, or at least a need by those two families, to get something out in the open that had not been out in the open. They're really not after the money."
Peter Read, who lost his daughter Mary Read in the shootings, said he hopes the trial will extract an acknowledgement from Steger that mistakes were made.
"He's said a lot of things, in public and private, and to this day maintains he did nothing wrong," Read said.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap