April 16′s legacy includes negligence
A jury on Wednesday found Virginia Tech negligent for delaying a campus warning after the first shootings on April 16, 2007. The families of two of the victims, Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson, won their lawsuit and $8 million total, though that amount could be reduced. Families of other victims had accepted a cash settlement from the school in return for promising not to go to court.
Five years have passed since the shootings, but those of us who were here, who suffered through anguishing days, weeks, months, years, still feel the pain.
The trial aggravated those old wounds. Yet we cannot hide from its verdict. Accountability and truth were the whole point.
Make no mistake, the person responsible for those deaths died at his own hand on April 16. The verdict does not change that; it only grants new perspective.
At their best, courts become the metaphorical crucible that burns away everything until only truth remains. Adversaries present their cases. A jury weighs the evidence against the law and reaches a conclusion.
Tech presented its evidence and witnesses. The families presented theirs. Jurors found the families more persuasive. They reached their decision in little more than three hours, which in so complex a case hints that they found the evidence overwhelming.
We who were not in the courtroom must trust that the outcome was just, the product of a legal process that has been tested uncounted times over the centuries. Yes, sometimes juries err, but that is the exception. We trust jurors to rule fairly when someone might be executed and in other cases of tremendous import. We should trust them in this case.
Whichever way the jury had decided, some people would have found it unsatisfactory. After five years, Tech’s partisans and critics had already made up their minds. Hindsight was crystal clear for too many people, though they peered through different lenses.
Meanwhile, Tech only tarnished its reputation at trial.
The timeline of events recorded by university officials on April 16 contained errors. That faulty timeline wound up influencing the official state investigation.
Perhaps mistakes were to be expected under the hectic circumstances of unfolding tragedy, but the lawsuit revealed officials took insufficient steps to fix them. That left the impression of their bumbling and cracking under pressure, at best. At worst, they created a record to serve their own ends at the expense of the truth and corrected it only when called out.
The more shameful part of the defense blamed Zenobia Hikes, then vice president for student affairs, for convincing administrators to delay notifying the campus that a killer was loose. She died in the intervening years and could not defend herself. Only at the end of the trial did officials admit she was but a messenger carrying recommendations from police.
The entire Tech community — and we are all part of that community just as we were five years ago — must come to terms with these revelations. The legacy of that day will henceforth include official negligence. Maybe an appeal will change the ruling, but always the record will show that a jury presented with the facts and the best defense Tech could muster still concluded administrators failed students. Tech officials did not kill anyone, but they did not do all that they could have.
University officials said they are disappointed in the decision and continue to maintain their innocence. They, like their partisan supporters, will not change their minds no matter what emerges from the crucible.
The most important words said to the families in the courtroom on Wednesday were, “I’m very, very sorry.” They came from Presiding Judge William Alexander.
They should have come from Tech President Charles Steger.
By Christian Trejbal
The Roanoke Times | 981-1645
Trejbal is a Roanoke Times editorial writer.
He is based in the New River Valley.