CHRISTIANSBURG, Va.- “We the jury, find in favor of the plaintiff…” were the only words heard in the courtroom before Celeste Peterson’s cries from the gallery filled the area. After over three hours of deliberation on Wednesday, a Montgomery county jury found Virginia Tech guilty of negligence for not alerting students immediately after the first two victims of the 2007 massacre were shot.
The jury, which consisted of four men and three women, awarded $4 million to the parents of deceased students Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson. These women were two of the 30 people that were shot and killed in Norris Hall at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007.
Tears rolled down the faces of the victim’s family members as they took in the words of the jury’s decision. Special Justice William Alexander, Chief Judge of the Franklin County Circuit Court, was selected for this case after New River Valley judges recused themselves.
Alexander said this was the toughest case he’s ever taken part in.
“I just want to tell you that my heart goes out to you all for the amount of suffering you all have experienced,” Alexander said. “I’m very, very sorry.”
Throughout the eight-day trial, Virginia Tech officials testified that the university did everything in their power to keep everyone on campus safe. Evidence found at the first shooting sight in West Ambler Johnston Hall led officials to believe that the first crime was a domestic homicide and it was impossible for them to foresee the unprecedented tragedy that would later occur in Norris Hall.
While the jury awarded each family $4 million, neither family may receive that much. The Virginia Tort Claims Act prevents these types of claims from receiving more than $100,000 in damages per suit. The state immediately filed a motion to reduce the awards.
Both families made it clear that this suit had nothing to do with the money, that they were looking for the university to take accountability for their actions, or lack there of, the morning of the massacre.
Peterson said while the verdict was read, all she could think of was Erin.
“We were ready to be Erin’s parents for the rest of our lives,” Peterson said. “We did this for her.”
Peterson’s mother expressed her daughter’s love for Virginia Tech. She said that Erin’s love for her school later translated into trust and all she wanted out of this case was the truth.
“The truth is what we wanted,” Peterson said. “It’s all we wanted, we came here for the truth.”
Defense attorney William Broaddus responded for Tech and the state after the verdict was read, firstly expressing his sympathy for the families of the victims and secondly, said that the incident was “unforeseen and unforeseeable.”
Virginia Tech’s President Charles Steger restated the university’s position in an email that was sent after the verdict was released.
“Certainly, we are disappointed with today’s decision. We stand by our long-held position that the administration and law enforcement at Virginia Tech did their absolute best with the information available,” he wrote.
While Broaddus stated that the Commonwealth plans to appeal the case, one thing is for sure; both families can find a little more peace in the aftermath of this tragedy.