- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 5, 2012

RICHMOND — An attorney for the parents of two Virginia Tech students killed in a 2007 massacre argues that the state’s request to throw out a jury’s negligence verdict is “fatally flawed.”

The attorney’s court filing said the jury’s finding should stand. It’s in response to the state’s motion to set aside the March 14 verdict, which concluded Virginia Tech officials waited too long to alert the Blacksburg campus of the first shootings in a rampage that ended with 33 dead, including the gunman.

The carnage by student Seung-hui Cho on April 16, 2007, was the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

The wrongful death lawsuit was brought by the parents of Erin N. Peterson and Julia K. Pryde. They said their daughters and others might have survived if the campus had been alerted earlier of Cho’s first two shootings in a dorm.

Campus leaders waited 2 1/2 hours before informing students and faculty of the shootings.

The state cited multiple issues in requesting the verdict be set aside, a first step toward an appeal. Attorneys for the state argued the evidence presented during the eight-day trial did not support the jurors’ findings and that they received improper instructions.

“These arguments are erroneous,” the parents’ attorney, Robert T. Hall, wrote in his 55-page response filed in Montgomery County Circuit Court and provided to the Associated Press on Tuesday. “A trial court has authority to set aside a jury verdict only where the verdict is plainly wrong or without credible evidence to support it.”

Mr. Hall argued that is not the case because the state omits facts supporting the jury’s verdict, leaving its appeal “fatally flawed.”

Mr. Hall is also battling to keep the jury’s award at $4 million for each family, despite a state cap on damages against the state at $100,000 each.

The trial judge, William Alexander, is scheduled to take up both matters at a hearing June 20 in Rocky Mount.

The trial focused on the actions of Tech officials in the minutes and hours following the shootings at about 7 a.m. at West Ambler Johnston Hall that left one student dead and another mortally wounded. Police concluded the shootings were likely domestic and not a threat to the larger campus, even though the gunman remained at large.

President Charles W. Steger, heeding the advice of Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum, did not authorize a campus-wide alert until 9:26 a.m. It stated only that a “shooting incident” had occurred on campus.

Cho resumed his killing spree less than 20 minutes later at Norris Hall after he chained shut the doors of the classroom building and killed 30 students and faculty, then himself. Minutes later, Tech released a specific warning that a “gunman is loose on campus.”

The lawsuit originally named Mr. Steger and Chief Flinchum, among others, but ultimately the only defendant was the state.

The Prydes and the Petersons were the only eligible families to reject their share of an $11 million settlement in 2008.

The lawsuit was the last pending litigation over the mass shootings. The state successfully appealed a separate fine handed down by federal education officials who concluded university officials’ actions on April 16 violated the Clery Act requiring schools to issue timely warnings of campus threats.

The U.S. Department of Education is seeking reinstatement of the $55,000 fine.

The Virginia attorney general’s office filed its response last week, using arguments similar to those offered at trial — that the first shootings appeared isolated.

“Based on all the evidence available, this crime appeared to be a completed act which did not represent an ongoing threat to others and therefore there was no violation of the timely warning requirement,” wrote Peter R. Messitt, a senior assistant attorney general.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan will rule on the appeal.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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