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Author
Steve Szkotak
Date
October 31, 2013

Justices reverse Va. Tech massacre verdict

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The state Supreme Court on Thursday reversed a jury’s wrongful death verdict against the state stemming from the 2007 killing of 32 students and faculty at Virginia Tech in the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

The justices ruled in the case of two students whose families argued that they might have survived the rampage if the Blacksburg campus had been alerted earlier to the gunman’s initial shootings at a dormitory. Erin Nicole Peterson, Julia Kathleen Pryde and 28 other people were killed nearly three hours later in Norris Hall, a classroom building.

But the justices agreed with the state — that there was no way to anticipate the deadly intentions of student Seung-Hui Cho, who killed himself after the killings.

“Based on the limited information available to the commonwealth at the time prior to the shootings in Norris Hall, it cannot be said that it was known or reasonably foreseeable that students in Norris Hall would fall victim to criminal harm,” the court wrote. “Thus, as a matter of law, the commonwealth did not have a duty to protect students against third party criminal acts.”

The court reversed the jury’s findings and issued a final ruling, meaning there is no avenue for appeal.

In a statement, the state attorney general’s office said the court “found what we have said all along to be true.”

Spokesman Brian Gottstein wrote in an email: “The commonwealth and its officials at Virginia Tech were not negligent on April 16, 2007. Cho was the lone person responsible for this tragedy.”

The case was the lone pending legal action stemming from the massacre, Gottstein said.

The appeal attorney representing the parents of Peterson, 18, and Pryde, 23, said justices applied a stricter standard than the trial judge. The public perception of the university’s actions could be a different matter, attorney L. Steven Emmert said.

“Now in the court of public opinion the university may suffer, that’s quite possible, but that’s not the court’s to deal with,” he said. “Courts will decide legal rights.”

The justices ruled on a March 2012 trial in Montgomery County, near the Tech campus, in which jurors found the state should have issued more timely campus warnings after Cho shot two in a dormitory. The jury awarded the families $4 million each. The trial judge later reduced the award to $100,000 for each family, the state cap on damages.

The trial focused on the time between the dorm shootings, shortly after 7 a.m., and the mass killings at Norris Hall, shortly before 10 a.m. The campus of more than 30,000 wasn’t told of the shooting until nearly 2 ½ hours after the initial incident, in a campus-wide email at 9:50 a.m. warning of a gunman on campus and advising students to remain inside. By then, Cho had chained the Norris Hall doors and killed the victims.

The state argued that law enforcement officials believed the first shootings were targeted, the result of a domestic dispute, and they concluded the larger campus was not at risk, even though the gunman remained on large. The justices concluded that university officials acted properly.

Attorneys for the parents also sought to put on trial Tech President Charles W. Steger. The opinion did not address that point, presumably because the ruling reversed the jury’s findings.

The state was the only defendant at trial.

Steger, who has announced his retirement, in a statement extended his gratitude to state attorneys who argued the appeal and “throughout the lengthy fallout from this wrenching tragedy.”

The Petersons and the Prydes are the only families of Tech victims who did not join in an $11 million settlement.

Their attorneys have shielded the Prydes and the Petersons from the media but they have said they were intent on holding university officials accountable for their actions on April 16, 2007.

In a statement Thursday, Virginia Tech said the high court ruling “can never reverse the loss of lives nor the pain experienced by so many families and friends of victims of one person.”

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

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