We had been cautioned, warned not to press our questions about Angie’s murder, not to press for answers. Privately, friends in the legal profession toll us we would only bring more grief on ourselves. These friends even raised the specter that in ways, both big and small, life will become difficult for us in the Old Dominion. Virginia’s politicians and legal professionals will close ranks to protect the law school, they warned. We have been warned that the legal establishment in Grundy has so many ties to the school and has so much invested in it that a retired coal miner and his wife, a retired school cook will never get their day in court. From Richmond, to Fairfax County, to Norfolk, to Grundy—the answers have been the same. Law firm after law firm refused to take on the law school.
The American Bar Association says there is no more fitting response to the tragedy than to continue to build a program of legal education that promotes the rule of law, opportunity, and justice.
Where is Angie’s opportunity? Where is our justice when those in charge do everything they can to keep the truth from coming out?
When the police and school failed to bring the author of the hideous e-mail justice, Angie told her family, “I guess I don’t amount to much.” You are wrong Angie, you mean everything to us and we will not let go of your memory, we will not let go of this fight for justice. On May 8th Angie should have graduated from the Appalachian School of Law—instead of attending the ceremony, we waited for answers.
Wherever you are, Angie, feel our anguish, feel our love. If you are calling our names, our hearts are answering.
I had wanted the article to appear on the second anniversary of the shooting, but on the advice of counsel I waited. In the meantime, I gave a draft to the Dales for their approval. As the time for the graduation ceremony for Angie’s law school approached, the attorney gave me the green light.
I sent the article to several large newspapers but heard nothing. I then sent it to our local newspaper The Rappahannock Record. The article appeared as a commentary in the editorial section on 6 May 2004. Later that month it appeared on the front page of The Voice, a biweekly paper in southwest Virginia, near Grundy.
The reaction to my article was surprising and somewhat chilling. One neighbor called to say she read the article, but would not let her husband read it because “he thinks he can fix everything. He cannot fix this and it will throw him into depression.” At the doctor’s office a nurse, giving my wife her allergy shot, closed the door and in quiet tones—as if not to be overheard—expressed her sympathy.
People in Kilmarnock with whom I had done business for years, stopped looking me in face. They talked about everything under the sun in painfully evident ways to avoid discussing the shooting. The black clerk at the local dry cleaner—the gregarious young woman who had greeted me each time I went into the store—met me with a grim look and watery eyes. She would not look me in the face. Her body language seemed to say “I am so sorry. I am so sorry a black man did this.”
I wanted to tell her that the color of the killer makes no difference. Monsters come in all shapes, in all sizes, in all colors. Instead, I said nothing. There was just silence.
From southwest Virginia, I received a call from a man wanting to organize a demonstration in front of the law school. He and his wife warned us that my article had made “official Grundy and the law school look bad.” I could be on a “hit list” they said. “Be careful when you visit your granddaughter. Stop at every stop sign, obey all the traffic laws,” they cautioned. “People have a way of going to jail in Grundy and not coming out alive.” If law enforcement officials didn’t like you they would stop you and plant contraband or drugs in your car—“look over your shoulder at all times.”
It was hard for me to believe what I was hearing. It took a while for his words to sink in. I was being warned that because I was expressing myself—exercising freedom of speech—I was putting my safety and the safety of my family on the line. I started reflecting on what had happened since the shootings. Had I been unfair? Had I been dishonest? Was I overacting or being too emotional? The more I thought about the phone call, the more bewildered I became. The phone call had been a dream—but no it was not. All of a sudden I felt as if I were living a Hollywood movie—“The Pelican Brief.” I knew it was not wrong to be asking questions, it was not wrong to press for answers—answers that might help prevent another tragedy.
My words did not make the Grundy elite look bad; their actions did.
The school president’s responses to calls for security such as “you women and your hormones……nothing will happen…..you will be ok,” made school officials look bad—not my words.
The hateful harangue of a State Highway Patrolman to the man whose eight year old granddaughter has just lost her mother in the state’s worst school shooting, makes the police look bad—not my words.
The disingenuous expressions of sympathy and offers of help from the Commonwealth’s Attorney, make local officials look bad—not my words.
The condescending tone and comments of a prominent Richmond attorney to a man and woman when the mother of their grandchild has been gunned down, make the legal profession look bad—not my words.
An attorney’s callous comment to members of the victim’s family that his sympathy lies with the law school and he is sending them a check, makes the legal profession in Virginia look bad—not my words.
The off-the-record comments of many attorneys in Virginia that we would not get our day in court, that we would not get a fair trial; these words make the courts there look bad—not my words.
The fact that an innocent young woman bled to death when the hospital was less than five minutes away—makes the school and rescue officials look bad, not my words.
The arrest of sixteen public and private officials on bribery and embezzling charges, makes Grundy look bad—not my words.
I have spent three quarters of my life as a resident of Virginia. I have always been so proud to say I come from Thomas Jefferson’s state, Jefferson the father of the Bill of Rights that guarantees everyone the freedom of speech, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—the right to life!
But that was Virginia then, this is Virginia now. Today, a grandfather cannot visit his granddaughter without being afraid of retaliation for what he has written. Today, a man can murder three people, wound three others and the state will spend a fortune on him to ensure that he is treated fairly. But, when the family of the student victim asks for a copy of the court transcripts, they are charged 10 cents a page. There is something terribly, terribly wrong in Virginia.
I could not help but think, this country invaded Iraq to bring the Iraqi people freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and a multitude of freedoms we—as a nation—proclaim so loudly. Freedom of speech that some of us have difficulty finding in today’s Virginia. Did we go to war to bring Virginia-style freedoms to Iraq—I hope not. (To be continued)