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Jury finds Virginia Tech liable in campus shooting

The parents of two slain students had sued the university, alleging that officials acted unreasonably by failing to warn students sooner.

By Steve SzkotakThe Associated Press / March 14, 2012

Judge William Alexander reads instructions to the jury before they begin deliberating.

Matt Gentry/AP

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The parents of two Virginia Tech students killed in a 2007 campus massacre worked for years to prove university officials were negligent for waiting to warn students of a gunman on campus, and a jury agreed with them on Wednesday.

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It took jurors 3½ hours to find that university officials botched their response to the April 16, 2007, massacre that left 33 people — including the gunman — dead. The jury determined in the wrongful death lawsuit against the state that the parents of Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson each deserved $4 million. The award likely will be sharply reduced because Virginia law requires such awards to be capped at $100,000.

The lawsuit was the last pending litigation over the mass shootings and it's not clear if any additional lawsuits will be filed. The state is expected to appeal the verdict, as it did a separate fine handed down by federal education officials. No criminal charges were brought in the shootings.

"We were looking for truth for a long time," Harry Pryde said outside the courthouse that's less than 10 miles from Tech's Blacksburg campus. "We persevered and we got some truth today."

After the verdict, the parents said their persistence is what their daughters would have wanted. They were the only eligible families to reject their share of an $11 million dollar settlement in 2008, instead taking the state to court in a wrongful death lawsuit.

The $11 million settlement was split between 24 families, excluding other disbursements such as $1.9 million set aside in a hardship fund. The state could not immediately provide a per-family breakdown of the settlement.

The families who sued the state, however, said getting answers mattered the most. They 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, in a classroom building.

"When you know that something is right you're not deterred from your course," said Celeste Peterson, whose daughter Erin died in the mass shooting that was the deadliest in modern U.S. history. "We wanted the truth from the very beginning and we got it. All I know is today we got what we wanted."

The state, which was the lone defendant in the case, argued the university did all that it could with the information available at the time. President Charles W. Steger and other university officials said they initially believed the first two shootings were isolated instances of domestic violence, based on what police investigators told them.

"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 verdict was met by sobs from Celeste Peterson, while her husband Grafton appeared to quietly weep at the plaintiff's table. They later embraced each other. The Prydes were stoic, as they were most of the eight-day trial.

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.

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.

"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," Owczarski said in a statement.

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