Saturday, June 27, 2009


When Fairfax County Circuit Judge Charles Maxfield decided, on June 11, 2009, to grant the defendants’ motion to change the venue of the trial dealing with the Virginia Tech shootings, he may have dealt a mortal blow to the search for truth. Moving the trial from Fairfax County in northern Virginia to Montgomery County (where the school is located) almost certainly assures conflict of interest and bias against the plaintiffs.

To understand the conflict of interest, you have to understand how Virginia’s judges are chosen. Each county in Virginia has a General Circuit Court, and Circuit Court judges are elected to eight year terms by the Virginia General Assembly. Delegate David Nutter of the 7th House District (which includes part of Montgomery County) and Delegate Jim Shuler of the 12th House District (which includes the town of Blacksburg and much of Virginia Tech itself) are both graduates of the school. The two men-co-authored a major OpEd piece in the Richmond Times-Dispatch on March 18, 2009 strongly supporting Tech President Charles Steger, one of the defendants in the lawsuit.

Both Delegate Nutter and Delegate Shuler play roles in the selection of Circuit Court judges in Blacksburg. Therefore, the judge who will hear the case most likely holds his or her position—in part—to two politicians who are on record as strongly supporting Charles Steger and the school against any charges of wrong-doing or incompetence. If this is not a blatant conflict of interest, I do not know what is. Furthermore, Virginia Tech is the largest employer in that part of the state—the school wields enormous power and influence—both economic and political. One has to ask, “Can objectivity stand up to such overwhelming strength to suppress the search for truth?”

Judge Maxfield, how could you miss this point? If you were going to allow a change of venue, why did you agree to a change that raises the specter of corruption of the legal process?

Equally as troubling as the decision to move the trial, is the wording of Judge Maxfield’s decision. The Judge’s reads:

On the 11th day of June, 2009, came the parties, by counsel, to be heard on the Defendant’s Motion to Transfer Venue of this mater to the Circuit Court of Montgomery County pursuant to Va. Code 8.01-265.

UPON CONSIDERATION WHEREOF, the court finds that good cause to transfer this action to Montgomery Count pursuant to Va. Code 8.01-265 exist because transfer to that venue would avoid substantial inconvenience to the parties and witnesses in this action.

IT IS ORDERED that venue be, and the same hereby is, transferred to the Circuit Court of Montgomery County, to which action of the Court Plaintiff, by counsel objected and excepted.

ENTERED: 6/11/09

Signed: C. Maxfield
Circuit Court Judge

The judge’s words raise questions. The use of the word “inconvenience” is especially troubling. The dictionary defines inconvenience as “1. Lack of ease or comfort; trouble; difficulty. 2. Something that causes difficulty, trouble, or discomfort; an inconvenient thing.” A convincing argument for a change of venue would have included the word “hardship” for the defendants—that word never appears. The families of the Virginia Tech murder victims have not had “ease” or “comfort” for over two years, they are “troubled,” they are having “difficulty” getting their lives back in order. But, Judge Maxfield doesn’t want the defendants to “lack ease or comfort,” or to be caused any “difficulty” or be “troubled.”

Words not only have their dictionary meanings, but the have connotations and members of the legal profession are trained in the use of words—they are sensitive to the actual and implied meanings of words. I have first-hand class room experience in this fact, I have taught dozens of lawyers in Intelligence analysis and writing. I have seen first hand their skill and knowledge in the use of words. The tone of “inconvenience” is at best disappointing. It is condescending and brushes aside the legitimacy of the families’ desire to leave no stone unturned to find answers and seek redress. I am finding it hard to accept that Judge Maxfield was not aware of the baggage the word “inconvenience” carries.

I am also concerned that the inconvenience to the victims’ families was blithely set aside. The families of the dead students and professors will be “inconvenienced” for the rest of their lives. The families of the victims will never stop wondering what could have been, what would my child have become? Now, thanks to Judge Maxfield’s ruling, the victims families will be inconvenienced even further.

Our children embody the meaning of life itself. In the final analysis, our children are our greatest and most valuable possessions—they give us meaning. Judge Maxfield’s decision is painful because he may have denied the Virginia Tech parents their right to a fair and honest day in court.

I was teaching an Intelligence writing course in northern Virginia when Judge Maxfield’s decision was made. During the class, one of the students asked me for an example of poor decisions by people in authority and poor analytical writing. My response was to cite Judge Maxfield’s decision to move the venue of the trial to Montgomery county, and Governor Kaine’s acceptance of the badly flawed report on the shootings at Virginia Tech.

One of the students, a former military intelligence officer who was recently in Iraq putting his life on the line in defense of this country and in support of our struggle against terrorism, asked a disturbing question: “Did you really expect the legal system or the Governor’s report to do anything but engage in a cover-up?”
His question stopped me dead in my tracks. I could only wonder, is that what the men and women in Iraq and Afghanistan think they are fighting for—cover-ups? I could only answer, “Given the magnitude of the crime committed on April 16, 2007, I thought Virginians everywhere—politicians, school officials, law enforcement officers, and members of the legal profession—would come together to find the truth. I was wrong. Judge Maxfield’s decision may be the most telling example of just how wrong I have been.”

(Blogger’s Note: Is anyone else upset over the student’s comment? After all the hype over our involvement in Iraq; after all the politicians’ chest-beating about bring democracy and rule-by-law to the Middle East, a young man who has put his life on the line for these goals expects our system of justice to be corrupt when it comes to this nation’s worst school shooting.)

It is a simple fact that if people and institutions are not held accountable for their actions and inactions, our schools will not be safe. There will be no incentive for the Charles Steger’s of this world to take action when confronted with threats, unless they realize they will pay a price—they will be forced to explain themselves, under oath in a court of law, and if that explanation is not satisfactory, they will—at minimum—lose their jobs.

The Fairfax County Circuit Court does not want the defendants to be inconvenienced, but for the parents and families of the Virginia Tech shooting, the inconvenience of the agony of their loss will be with them the rest of their lives. The victims’ families will spend the rest of their time on this earth trying to make something out of what held so much promise, what could have been.

Friday, June 12, 2009


Mistakes in judgment often are understandable and become regrets because they were honest and made in the heat of the moment. However, in the case of Virginia Tech, it seems clear that many of the decisions made in the wake of the horrors of April 16, 2007, were not mistakes in judgment; they were cold, calculating decisions designed to protect the school’s leaders and reputation. All available evidence indicates the school put damage control ahead of the interests of the victims’ families and ahead of school safety.

Within three days of the shootings, a Web site ( in support of President Charles Steger and Chief Wendell Finchum was created. By contrast, it took Virginia Tech’s Office of Recovery and Support four months to get the Web site ( for the victims’ families up and running.

Less than six weeks after the shootings, on May 29, 2007, Virginia Tech signed a contract with one of this country’s largest and most prestigious publication firms—Burson-Marsteller—to handle publicity about the shooting rampage. (And no doubt, to put the school, President Steger, and Chief Finchum in the best light, by focusing public attention away from the administration’s glaring mistakes in judgment and on “the Hokie nation’s” need to pull together and recover.)

Monies paid to Burson-Marsteller totaled $663,006.48. This, in spite of the fact that Virginia Tech has a university public relations office staffed by highly competent officials—as well as courses in public relations taught by outstanding faculty members—yet the school paid nearly $700,000.00 to a public relations firm to spin the shooting tragedy. Burson-Marsteller came to prominence in the 1990s for organizing a campaign in support of Philip Morris and the tobacco industry focused on smokers’ rights. (Do I see a tie to some of the most powerful groups in Virginia?) Later, they played spin-doctor again for Dow-Corning’s campaign on behalf of silicone breast implants. Some silicone implants developed leaks once implanted in a woman’s body, causing serious health problems. Can there be any other conclusion that Burson-Marsteller was engaged by Virginia Tech to continue working the magic of misdirection in their client’s favor?

Compare the $663.006.48 of tax payers’ money spend on public relations with the $100,000.00 awarded to each of the dead victims’ families. A paltry $100,000.00 compensation for the loss of a child is a disgrace and an insult. Paying a huge amount of money to a public relations firm only adds insult to injury. The math is lousy; the math says it all. The school’s judgment and priorities were badly misplaced. The nearly $700,000.00 would have been better spent had it been given to the grieving families to help in the recovery process—counseling, etc. Or, the money should have been spent on school security as a tribute to the victims.

On March 18, 2009, an OpEd article of mine appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The article called for Virginia Tech President Charles Steger to step down and for Governor Kaine to reopen the investigation into the Tech shootings. A few days later, I received a well-written, thoughtful response from a lawyer in New York. He wrote, “While there are many bright, highly competent and well-intentioned people working in higher education, there is also a high level of mediocrity, incompetence and self-interest. In my opinion the latter traits have been displayed in this situation at Virginia Tech. And, such traits have been excused and ratified by the Governor’s immediate political actions in this instance.”

My family is part of the Hokie Nation. Our youngest son, Richard, is a graduate of Virginia Tech. We are so proud of the outstanding education he received at Virginia Tech, and we always have been. However, that pride does not preclude the shame we feel over the school’s abysmal leadership—specifically, the school’s cold, calculating actions designed to protect and enhance the Virginia Tech image at the expense of the victims’ families.