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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.

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The attorney general's office said it was discussing "our options" with the Tech administration on an appeal and maintained trial evidence "established that it was the unanimous decision of three law enforcement agencies that the mass shooting was simply not foreseeable."

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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."

"What happened at Norris Hall was not reasonably foreseeable," he told jurors during closing arguments.

Outside of court, Hall disagreed: "It's so clear that a warning should have been given. The amount of the verdict speaks to that end."

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, including Steger, heeded the police conclusion without question, then 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.

Police were pursuing the boyfriend of one of the dorm shooting victims as a "person of interest" at the expense of a campus-wide alert, the plaintiffs' attorneys said.

Police stopped the boyfriend 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. He then killed himself.

Tech officials issued a specific warning that a "gunman is loose on campus" through emails to 37,000 at 9:50 a.m., nearly 10 minutes after Cho began the Norris slaughter.

The parents' attorneys also accused Steger and other administrators of trying to cover up their missteps by building official timelines that suggested they reacted more aggressively to the first shootings. Tech administrators said mistakes in the timelines were made in the fog of a horrific tragedy.

The state presented witnesses, including experts in campus security, who said Tech police and administrators acted properly when they concluded the dorm shootings were domestic. The shootings occurred in an isolated area of the dorm, and the victims were a man and a woman clad in their undergarments and sleepwear.

Steger testified that he delayed sending a specific warning to avoid a panic and to allow the university to notify the victims' parents. He said the advice to delay a specific warning came from a member of his Policy Group who has since died.

S. Daniel Carter, a campus safety advocate, called the verdict a "vindication for all of us who have said more should have been done to protect the Virginia Tech campus." The trial, he added, was also "a vital opportunity to set the record straight about exactly what happened, and when."

A state panel that investigated the shootings concluded that officials erred in not sending an alert earlier. The lag in issuing a campus warning also brought Virginia Tech a $55,000 fine from the U.S. Education Department, which the school is appealing.

As far as Wednesday's jury award, Hall said that only actions by the governor, attorney general or General Assembly could raise it above $100,000.

Some parents have questioned why no one at Tech was held accountable for their actions, and Hall said the verdict sends a message to the university's board.

"The board of visitors will not be able to ignore the verdict," he said. "How they react to it is up to them."

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