- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2007

RICHMOND — The state panel investigating the Virginia Tech shootings obtained a tape recording and transcripts of gunman Seung-hui Cho’s mental health hearing by court order yesterday.

The special justice who conducted the Dec. 14, 2005, hearing ruled Cho was a danger to himself, but not others, and ordered him to get outpatient treatment. There has been no indication that Cho, who killed 32 persons before committing suicide, ever sought the treatment.

The panel Gov. Timothy M. Kaine appointed to investigate the April 16 shootings had been stymied in its efforts to obtain Cho’s mental health and education records because of state and federal privacy laws.

Mr. Kaine signed an executive order Monday clarifying the powers of the eight-member panel and instructing the university and other public institutions to provide the panel with Cho’s academic and health records to the extent allowed by law.

With the executive order in hand, lawyers for the panel asked Montgomery County General District Court Judge Randal J. Duncan to release the audio tape and records from the commitment hearing conducted by Special Justice Paul M. Barnett. Judge Duncan granted the motion yesterday.

“We waited for the executive order to file the motion,” said Gerald W. Massengill, the former state police superintendent and chairman of the panel. “I can’t say for sure what weight it had with the judge, but I think it was significant.”

In the court order, Judge Duncan said the panel “was clothed with authority for appropriate oversight of the Virginia Mental Health Care System” by the governor’s directive.

Mr. Massengill said panel members Diane Strickland and Dr. Aradhana A. Sood will listen to the tape and review the written records before reporting to the full panel at its next meeting July 18 in Charlottesville.

Virginia Tech already has given Cho’s school counseling records to the panel after getting permission from Cho’s family. The panel also wants Cho’s college and high school scholastic records.

Mr. Kaine’s executive order allows the panel to ask his office or Virginia Crime Commission to use their subpoena powers to obtain records. He said the materials will be classified as governor’s “working papers,” which are exempt from the state’s open-records law.

“This formalizes a lot of directions and guidance that we’ve been given from the governor and other sources,” Mr. Massengill said. “It’s one thing for a public official such as the governor to stand up and give a charge to a group of people about his expectations, but in legal proceedings you need it reduced to writing and you need something like this executive order to make it clear.”

Kaine spokesman Kevin Hall said privacy laws still could impede the panel, but the executive order “gives them the legal authority to go into the court system and argue for access.”

Virginia Tech spokesman Larry Hincker said he had not yet spoken with the university’s lawyers about how the school will respond to Mr. Kaine’s directive.

“We have said all along that we want to provide as much information as the panel needs to do its job. It’s just that in a couple of places we bumped into these legal barriers,” Mr. Hincker said.

Cho’s contact with the mental health system is a major focus of the panel’s review.

Cho was involuntarily sent to Carilion St. Albans Behavioral Center for an overnight stay and mental evaluation in December 2005 when police received a report that he was suicidal. After Justice Barnett ordered outpatient treatment, Cho made an appointment with Virginia Tech’s Cook Counseling Center but there was no indication that he kept it.

In April, Mr. Kaine signed an executive order intended to close the loophole that allowed Cho to purchase guns. Mr. Kaine’s order compels anyone ordered by a court to get mental health treatment be added to a state police database of people barred from buying guns.

Before that, only people who were committed to inpatient mental hospitals were entered into the database that licensed firearms dealers use to run instant background checks on prospective buyers.

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