CHRISTIANSBURG, Virginia (AP) -- A jury on Wednesday found Virginia Tech negligent for waiting to warn students about a gunman during a 2007 campus massacre that left 33 dead.
Jurors deliberated for just 3 1/2 hours before siding with the parents of two students who were killed on April 16, 2007, in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. 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 dormitory. 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 it argued that the university did all it could with the information available at the time. President Charles W. Steger and other university officials have said they initially believed the first two shootings were isolated instances of domestic violence.
The jury awarded $4 million each to the families of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde, and the state immediately filed a motion to reduce the award. State law requires the award to be capped at $100,000, but jurors weren't told of the cap.
One of the state's attorneys, Peter R. Messitt, said before the verdict that Tech officials could not be expected to anticipate the killing spree, calling the slaughter unprecedented "in the history of higher education" and "one of the most horrible days in America."
"We are disappointed with today's decision and stand by our long-held position that the administration and law enforcement at Virginia Tech did their absolute best with the information available on April 16, 2007," Virginia Tech spokesman Mark Owczarski said in a statement.
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 waited 2 1/2 hours before sending a campus-wide warning that a "shooting incident" had occurred. It did not say a gunman was still at large.
Meanwhile, shots rang out at Norris Hall, where student Seung-Hui Cho chained shut the doors to the building and killed students and faculty. He then killed himself.
Tech officials issued a specific warning that a "gunman is loose on campus" through emails at 9:50 a.m., nearly 10 minutes after Cho began the slaughter.
Steger testified that he delayed sending a specific warning to avoid a panic and to allow the university to notify the victims' parents.
"The university's contention has been all along, to quote president Steger, `We did everything we could do,"' said Robert T. Hall, an attorney for the parents. "Obviously the jury didn't buy that."
The Prydes and the Petersons were the only eligible families who didn't accept their share of a previous settlement with the state worth $11 million.
Circuit Judge William Alexander said it was the hardest case he had been a part of.
"My heart goes out to all of you," he said to the families of victims.