“Safety and security don’t just happen, they are the result
of collective consensus and public investment. We owe our
children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life
free of violence and fear.”
~Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa
It was not about money; it was never about money.
If you were to ask the parents of Erin Nicole Peterson or Julia Kathleen Pryde whether $8 million is a fair price for the lives of their children, they would throw the offer in your face. If you were to ask them if $80 million is a fair price for the lives of their daughters, they would say there is no amount of money that is worth a child’s life—period. There is nothing that can compensate parents for the agonizing silence when they enter their dead child’s bedroom; there is nothing that will ever make the pain completely go away.
For the plaintiffs, the whole purpose of the lawsuit was to find out the truth that had not been revealed by the Governor’s report that was supposed to have given them a complete picture of how their daughters were killed in the largest school massacre in modern U.S. history.
And it was not just about two families. Pryde and Peterson may have been the names on the suit, but they were not the only ones driven to find the truth. All the families of the victims were in the courtroom in spirit. Andy Goddard, father of Colin Goddard, who was seriously injured in the shooting, came every day to listen to the proceedings and take notes. Andy sent his notes each evening to families of the killed or wounded who were not able to attend the trial.
When the Pryde and Peterson families filed their lawsuit, many of us wondered if they could get a fair trial or if the cards were stacked against them. Stop to think of what they were doing: they were suing Virginia’s largest state university, a school that is the most powerful economic engine in southwest Virginia. The school has a powerful lobby in Richmond, and one member of the school administration, David Nutter, actually served in the Virginia House of Delegates at the time. As I have already noted, Nutter did not back legislation meant to strengthen school safety. Furthermore, the trial was to be heard by a Virginia judge appointed by the Virginia legislature. The potential for conflict of interest and the possibilities for undue influence and miscarriage of justice were alarming.
Not only did the school have powerful support in Richmond, but Tech was probably counting on swinging public opinion in its favor with the fact that 30 of the 32 dead victims’ families had settled with the state. The strategy apparently relied on the assumption that no one would learn what had motivated the other 30 families to sign, and that the factual flaws in the Governor’s report would never be discovered. Tech was gambling that there would be no need to formally acknowledge the errors, if discovered, until the two-year statute of limitations for filing legal claims or challenging the legitimacy of any settlement had expired.
The state of Virginia appeared willing to do anything to keep Virginia Tech from being sued. Michael Pohle remembers the families of the deceased being told, through their own attorneys, that the state would withhold payment for medical care for the wounded survivors if the families of those killed did not settle. Given the emotional roller coaster the families were on and their inability to think clearly as they came to grips with their loss, they were easy prey.
Indeed, as soon as the terms of the settlement offer were known, the families began speculating among themselves that the wounded were being held hostage to get them to sign. Once the family meetings were held in October, 2008 with Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum and law enforcement officials (following the settlement), some family members, including Michael Pohle, publicly challenged the settlement, arguing they had been lied to and the state had used the wounded as pawns to force families to settle.
The fact that the families’ attorneys carried this message raises serious questions. Yes, on the one hand it would be appropriate for them to convey such information to their clients, but it is odd that the some of the families do not remember their attorneys going into detail about what other options were available other than accepting the settlement terms. Some families had the feeling they were being rushed into a settlement.
The state played the same game with the families of the wounded. Andy Goddard recalls being told the families of the deceased would get nothing if they, the families of the wounded, did not settle. (To be continued)