RICHMOND, Va. — The state moved Thursday to reverse a wrongful death verdict in the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech while the parents of two students killed want the university’s president to stand trial for failing to alert the campus when the first gunshots rang out.
The separate appeals were filed in the state Supreme Court within 24 hours of each other.
A jury in March found the state negligent in the deaths of Erin N. Peterson and Julia K. Pryde and awarded their families $4 million each. A judge in June upheld the negligence finding but reduced the jury’s award to $100,000 for each family, the highest amount allowed under a cap on damages against the state.
The women were among 32 faculty and students killed on April 16, 2007, on Tech’s Blacksburg campus. Student gunman Seung-Hui Cho also killed himself in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.
While the actions that morning of Steger, campus police and other university leaders were put under the microscope in a courtroom, the president and other officials were dismissed from the case before trial, leaving the state as the lone defendant. Attorneys for the parents argued successfully that Steger and other university officials waited too long after the first two students were shot in a dormitory to alert the campus of the violence. The gunman was still at large.
In his appeal, attorney Robert T. Hall cites a policy adopted by Tech’s Board of Visitors that recognizes the school’s responsibility to provide a safe campus for its students.
“The policy required university relations and the university police to make the campus community aware of crimes … in a timely fashion and in such a way as to aid in the prevention of similar occurrences,” Hall wrote in the appeal, filed late Wednesday and provided to The Associated Press.
In its appeal, the state said the parents failed to support their claims and cited trial errors, including the judge’s instructions to jurors in which they were told the university “should have reasonably foreseen” Cho’s actions and had a duty to immediately warn the campus of a gunman who remained at large. The state said university officials had no statutory duty to do so and there were no assurances Pryde and Peterson would have survived even if they were warned earlier.
“The events of April 16, 2007, represent an unprecedented tragedy,” the state said in its appeal. “Something the scope of which had never occurred previously on a college campus in Virginia or elsewhere played out that day, and dozens of people, including Peterson and Pryde, lost their lives.”
The state is seeking a reversal of the jury’s verdict and final judgment by Supreme Court justices or a new trial.
During the trial, Steger and other university officials testified that police investigators had concluded that the first shootings had all the signs of targeted domestic violence, and not the work of someone intent on mass killing. They delayed fully informing the campus of the shootings even though the gunman remained unaccounted for and they pursued a lead that was fruitless.
Steger said he heeded the advice of police investigators at the scene.
A full alert informing the campus of the first shootings wasn’t released until 2 1/2 hours later as Cho concluded his killing spree at Norris Hall, chaining the doors of the classroom building to ensure students and faculty could not flee and killing 30. Peterson and Pryde were among the dead in Norris.
While a Tech spokesman said the university had not seen the parents’ appeal, he said “university leaders acted appropriately in the events leading up to, during, and after the tragic events of April 16, 2007.”
“An unthinkable, horrible crime occurred that day by the hands of Seung-Hui Cho,” spokesman Mark Owczarski said in a statement Thursday. “The university community has shown uncommon strength during a challenging and painful period that has united alumni, students, faculty and staff more tightly than ever. We are resolved to learn from the tragedy. We remember the lives lost. We honor them and always will.”
Besides accountability, taking Steger to trial would also increase the prospect of larger damages for the Petersons and Prydes, perhaps up to $2 million from the state’s risk management plan.
The Petersons and the Prydes were the only eligible families to reject their share of an $11 million settlement in 2008.