CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. - A jury found Virginia Tech negligent on Wednesday for waiting to warn students about a gunman during a 2007 campus massacre that left 33 dead.
Jurors deliberated for ½three hours before siding with the parents of two students who were killed on April 16, 2007, in the most deadly mass shooting in modern US history. Their wrongful death civil lawsuit 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, at a classroom building.
The state was the lone defendant in the case and argued that the university did all that it could with the information available at the time. President Charles W. Steger said he initially believed the first two shootings were instances of domestic violence.
The jury awarded $4 million each to the families of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde, but the state immediately filed a motion to reduce the award. State law requires the award to be capped at $100,000.
“Today we got what we wanted,’’ Celeste Peterson, the mother of Erin Peterson, said afterward. “The truth is out there, and that’s all we ever wanted. We came here for the truth.’’
Circuit Judge William Alexander told the families of victims, “My heart goes out to all of you.’’
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.
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 heeded the police conclusion without question, then waited 2 1/2 hours before sending a campuswide warning that a “shooting incident’’ had occurred. It did not say a gunman was still at large.
Police stopped the boyfriend of one of the dorm shooting victims 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 inside. He then killed himself.
Tech officials issued a specific warning that a “gunman is loose on campus’’ through e-mails to 37,000 at 9:50 a.m., nearly 10 minutes after Cho began the Norris slaughter.