Justices hear appeals in Va. Tech trial

By Steve Szkotak, Associated Press – 9/12/2013

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The parents of two students killed in the 2007 mass shootings at Virginia Tech were in the courtroom Thursday as the state sought to reverse a jury’s wrongful death finding and their attorneys pressed to put the school’s president on trial for his actions during the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The parents of Erin Nicole Peterson and Julia Kathleen Pryde, as well as other families of students who survived the attack by a lone gunman, looked on as justices of the state Supreme Court considered the consolidated appeals of the state and the families.

Citing trial errors, the state is asking the court to reverse a March 2012 jury verdict that found the state negligent in its response to the massacre on Tech’s Blacksburg campus. Attorneys for the parents defended the verdict and are seeking to put Tech’s retiring president, Charles Steger, on trial.

Justices, who repeatedly questioned the attorneys, are expected to rule on the appeals by Nov. 1.

After the arguments, the parents expressed no weariness with their solitary court pursuit quest for official accountability for the April 16, 2007, killings. They are the only Tech families who did not join in an $11 million settlement.

“I’m just going to wait and see what the court decides,” Celeste Peterson said in an interview after the arguments. She added that her daughter, Erin, would have been 25 in August.

“She could really fill up a room,” Peterson said of her only child. Since her death, she said, “Everything stopped. Anyone who has lost a child knows that. Living every day without my child is tough.”

Of the six years since her daughter’s death, Karen W. Pryde said, “It doesn’t seem like so many years ago. It’s still fresh.”

The negligence suit filed by the Prydes and Petersons was based on the university’s response to the first two shootings by student Seung-Hui Cho at a dormitory. The campus wasn’t fully told of the first shootings until two hours later.

By then, Cho had chained closed the doors of a classroom building, Norris Hall, where he killed 30 students and faculty before killing himself.

Pryde and Peterson were among the dead in Norris Hall.

Their attorneys argue that the young women could have survived if they had been warned by university officials through a “blast” email sent to 36,000 people on campus.

“We had one dead, one wounded, students on the campus, and a gunman on the loose,” said Robert T. Hall, the trial attorney for the families.

Deputy Attorney General Wes Russell argued that even if the university alerted the campus, there was no evidence the violence would go beyond the first shootings at the dorm or any guarantee the two women would have survived.

Steger, who announced his retirement this year but has stayed until a successor is found, testified at trial that he was told by police investigators at the scene of the first shootings that the two were probably targeted by the gunman, and that they were likely part of a domestic dispute. Police advised him the shootings were an isolated incident and did not pose a threat to the wider campus, Steger testified.

Steger was initially named in the civil action filed by the Prydes and the Petersons, but he was dismissed before trial. The dismissal was based on a legal concept that someone dismissed in one tort in one court cannot be named in the same filing in another court.

L. Steven Emmert, an appeal attorney for the families, argued that Steger was improperly dismissed.

Russell disagreed, and said Steger should be protected by absolute immunity as a high government official who was acting in his official capacity.

Outside of court, Hall said the parents want Steger held accountable by putting him on trial.

The Prydes and the Petersons were each awarded $4 million by jurors who found the state negligent. The state later reduced the award to the state’s cap on damages: $100,000.