VIRGINIA SUPREME COURT: PENN STATE SYNDROME
All too often over the last few years there have been spectacles of large institutions protecting themselves and their reputations in the face of the most vile crimes. Penn State is a prime example of people in leadership positions placing the school and its highly regarded football program reputation ahead of the safety of young boys.
Sadly, in Virginia we have experienced a similar disregard for human decency and truth when confronted with a crime of monumental proportions. Here, it was not turning a blind eye toward years of sexual molestion of young boys, it was the murder of 32 people and the wounding of 17 at Virginia Tech.
Virginians know all too well that for nearly seven years the Virginia Tech victims and families have sought the truth. But the power of the governor’s mansion, the state’s Attorney General, and the influence peddling of the southwestern Virginia’s most powerful economic engine, Virginia Tech, have blunted their efforts.
First, came the school’s hiring of one of the most powerful public relations firms, Burson-Marsteller, (at a cost of around three-quarters of a million dollars) to spin the tragedy to the school’s benefit. Second, came the state’s hiring of a private, Arlington-based company to produce a badly flawed Governor’s Review Panel Report. The final version of that report, known as The Addendum, is still riddled with errors, fails to address critical questions, and assigns no blame despite evidence of gross incompetence.
Now, the third and most recent Virginia example of bureaucratic willingness to protect an institution’s reputation despite glaring evidence of incompetence and willful blindness, comes in the Virginia Supreme Court’s decision to set aside a jury verdict holding Virginia Tech accountable and liable for not warning the campus on the morning of April 16, 2007.
The decision was announced, fittingly, on Halloween—October 31, 2013. In a poorly written decision that contains a critical error of fact, Justice Cleo E. Powell wrote, “under the facts of this case, there was no duty for the Commonwealth to warn students about the potential for criminal acts by third parties.”
There are two major problems with the Court’s reasoning. First is a major error fact. Justice Powell wrote on page two “… the Blacksburg Police Department led the investigation.” That is not true. The investigation was conducted under an agreement between Blacksburg and the school whereby the requesting police force led the investigation.The Virginia Tech Police Department’s Chief Wendell Flinchum led the investigation. How could the Virginia Supreme Court unanimously be wrong on this critical fact?
The second problem in the decision says the ruling is based on the facts of the case and then the supreme court interprets some facts in the most favorable way possible for the school and completely ignores other facts. For example, there is absolutely no evidence that the double homicide at Norris Hall at 7:15 a.m. was a domestic incident or love triangle—which was the the school’s excuse for not warning.
The court never explains why it was correct for Virginia Tech to warn the campus nine months earlier when William Morva broke out of the Blacksburg jail and killed two people, but the school failed to warn when no weapon was found at a double murder, with thirteen bloodly footprints leading away from the crime scene. All the evidence pointed to a killer being on the loose and on campus.
The court decision never explains why it was correct for Virginia Tech to warn the campus over the flu and mold, but not a murderer. The court apparently is not interested in the discrepancies between the sworn testimony of Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum and notes taken at the school’s Policy Group over whether or not to warn the campus and lockdown.
It was bad enough that the timeline in the state’s official report of the rampage, The Addendum, could not even get the timing of Cho’s sucide correct and omits critical facts. Now the Virginia Supreme Court has added its name to the list of government organizations willing to play fast and free with facts in order to protect a school and its leaders.
In my classes on intelligence and crime analysis I teach there are two critical parts to an investigation: the timeline and the person in charge of the investigation (and how the investigation is conducted). The Governor’s Review Panel Report got the first one wrong, the Virginia Supreme Court got the second one wrong—in a unanimous decision.