- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 2, 2007

RICHMOND — The eight-member panel that will probe last month’s massacre at Virginia Tech meets for the first time next week under pressure to yield at least preliminary findings within three months.

The panel chairman, retired Virginia State Police Superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, said Tuesday that dealing with mentally ill people such as the shooter in the massacre, Seung-hui Cho, has “bubbled to the surface” of the review panel.

However, without subpoena power, the panel may have to rely on other state institutions to pry loose the health and student records of Cho, 23, who killed 32 students and faculty and injured dozens more before fatally shooting himself.

“If there are legal restrictions, if there are statutes that prevent the flow of information to the panel that we think we need, we have the Attorney General’s Office,” Mr. Massengill said.

There also are other avenues of state government available to the panel that might be able to subpoena testimony or documents, said Mr. Massengill, who expects no problems getting people to testify.

But Carl Tobias, a constitutional-law professor at the University of Richmond, questioned whether an inquiry with a mandate as broad as the panel’s can do all of its work without subpoenas.

“Maybe the attorney general could supplement the panel as needed, but it seems awfully cumbersome to me,” Mr. Tobias said. “It could be that Virginia Tech finds that it has a conflict and decides not to answer, then you have to go to” subpoenas.

Nor was he certain that the attorney general or other state agencies could act as a proxy to compel testimony or the production of evidence for a third-party panel in what is described as a review, not a criminal investigation.

Mr. Tobias said Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, a Democrat, might be able to provide the panel the power to obtain subpoenas if it finds a need for it later. “But I don’t know why it wouldn’t be authorized all along,” he said.

Among the most pressing issues before the panel are how a Virginia Tech student with an alarming history of morose and menacing behavior and whose court-ordered psychiatric treatment was a matter of public record was not stopped before he carried out the killings.

Also atop the panel’s agenda are the actions that Virginia Tech and police took in the time between Cho’s two early-morning shootings in a dormitory and the 30 more he committed in Norris Hall 2 hours later and a half mile away.

Mr. Massengill expects the panel’s inquest also to cover issues as wide-ranging as gun-control laws and post-traumatic stress disorders for police, medics and others who saw the carnage at the Blacksburg campus.

“Can you only imagine what it’s like to open the door such as was done on the second floor of Norris Hall by those young police officers and first-responders and see what was seen. Imagine what that does to you over the days and weeks and months and even years to come,” Mr. Massengill said.

Mr. Kaine will address the panel at its first meeting May 10 and outline what the administration in recent days has described as an “incident-specific after-action review,” taking pains to distinguish it from an investigative body.

“We’re not investigative fact-finders,” said Kaine press secretary Kevin Hall. “That’s what law enforcement does. Their charge, as I understand it, is to improve processes, to improve responses, instead of a crime investigation.”

The panel will have the aid of TriData Corp., an Arlington-based public-safety consulting and research firm that handled similar reviews after the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado in 1999 and Virginia’s 2003 response to Hurricane Isabel.

Mr. Kaine has authorized an initial outlay of $150,000 for the firm, Mr. Hall said. That amount could increase, depending on the firm’s duties and their duration.

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