Despite all the maneuvering and not so subtle pressures brought to bear on the Pryde and Peterson families, they filed a lawsuit in the Fairfax County Circuit Court in northern Virginia on April 16, 2009. At the time, the Pryde and Peterson families issued a statement explaining their actions and why they did not go along with the other victims’ families in reaching an out-of-court settlement. The two families said they declined to go along with the earlier settlement because they did not have all the facts on the handling of the shooting. The press quoted the two families as saying, “We believe that our suit is necessary to reveal truths that ultimately will benefit all those who have shared in this tragic loss.” The following is the statement issued by the two families:
“We raised our daughters with a sense of integrity, a desire to seek the truth and a belief in keeping their word. Virginia Tech did not keep its word to us. We have filed this lawsuit in the hope that we will receive accountability for the tragic events of April 16, 2007.”
“The faculty and students of Virginia Tech have been extremely supportive of the families during this difficult time. Erin and Julia loved Virginia Tech and they felt at home there and were receiving a wonderful education. But, on April 16, 2007 the administrators who ran the university let our daughters down in ways we are just now learning.”
“Sadly, the Report of the (Virginia Tech) Review Panel to the Governor, issued in August 2007, contained important inaccuracies, despite the panel’s best efforts to get to the truth. University officials, it now appears, may have been less than candid and forthright in their responses to the questions put to them by the panel.”
The court proceedings began on Monday March 5, 2012 with the jury selection process. Andy Goddard sat and listened to the opening day remarks as Judge William Alexander introduced the plaintiffs and their lawyers as well as the lawyers for the Commonwealth of Virginia. Judge Alexander explained that this was a civil trial and as such, had a lower standard of proof than a criminal trial. In a civil trial, the plaintiffs have to prove there is a preponderance of evidence that Virginia Tech, acting as an agent for the Commonwealth of Virginia, was negligent in failing to warn students of danger on the campus. The judge noted that many of the prospective jurors had ties to Virginia Tech, but that would not disqualify them as long as the relationship had not made it impossible for them to be impartial. Judge Alexander also cautioned that once the jury was selected, the jurors must listen to the evidence, instructions on the law from the judge as well as all the arguments, and only then decide. Their decision must be made on what they had heard during the trial.
By noon of the second day the jury was selected and seated. Judge Alexander then advised the jury that they must:
- Decide if the Commonwealth of Virginia was negligent not to warn Ms. Pryde and Ms. Peterson of danger on campus.
- Determine if this negligence was the proximate cause of Ms. Pryde and Ms. Peterson’s deaths, and if so what compensatory damages should be awarded.
- Bear in mind that the standard of proof is a preponderance of evidence.
The prosecution then began its case. Andy Goddard knew the chronology of events by heart; he could repeat them in his sleep. As he listened, he already knew when Ryan Clark and Emily Hilscher were murdered, between 7:05 and 7:12 a.m. He also knew that between 7:21 and 7:24 a.m. the police were on the scene and found bloody footprints leading away from the crime scene as well as a bloody thumb print on a door at the end of the footprint trail.
Goddard continued to listen to the already well-known facts: by 7:50 a.m. the police knew they were looking for a 9mm automatic weapon because of the shell casings found near the bodies. It was readily apparent that the crime was not a murder-suicide because the police found no weapon at the crime scene.
According to Chief Flinchum’s testimony, he arrived at the crime scene between 7:44 a.m. and 7:49 a.m. He was, then, aware of the above information. The chief admitted on the stand that he had the authority to issue a warning; he also indicated that he never raised the subject of warning the campus in his talks with President Steger. By 8:15 a.m., an hour after the shootings, the students, staff, and faculty had not been alerted to the murders. No one other than a few police officers and school administrators knew that a gunman could be present on the campus. Chief Flinchum’s failure to warn students because he perceived no threat and he believed the gunman had left the campus does not jibe with the fact that his officers were looking for a gunman on campus, and two fully armed and equipped swat teams were being mustered to assist in an arrest. Some believe that Flinchum’s failure to press for a campus-wide warning and lockdown are tantamount to gross negligence.
Flinchum’s denial that a campus-wide warning was discussed on the morning of April 16, 2007 stands at odds with official notes from Policy Group’s meeting that fateful morning. The discrepancy can be found in a document from the Virginia Attorney’s office, “Designation of Expert Witnesses by Defendants Commonwealth of Virginia Charles W. Steger and James A Hyatt,” and signed by Peter R. Messitt, Senior Assistant Attorney General and dated July 28, 2011.
One of the state’s expert witnesses, Steven J. Healy, a managing partner with the professional services firm, Margolis, Healy and Associates, interviewed two people, Lisa Wilkes and Kim O’Rourke, senior administrators and participants in the senior administrative group that convened in President Steger’s conference room in Burruss Hall. In her notes, Ms. Wilkes wrote, “a lockdown is not necessary,” relaying her understanding that there was no imminent threat to the campus community. Ms. O’Rourke, in her notes wrote that “police don’t believe a lockdown is necessary at this time.”
According to the state’s own expert, Steven J. Healy, “the senior administration reached their opinions about the absence of danger to the rest of the campus community through their on-going communications between Chief Flinchum, the on-scene commander at WAJ, and Zenobia Hikes, Vice President for Student Affairs, who was at Burruss Hall with the senior administrative group, and Edward Spencer, Associate Vice President for Student Affairs, who was at WAJ at the command post since 7:45 am.”
To date, no one has explained the discrepancy between Flinchum’s sworn testimony that a lockdown was not discussed and the official notes from the meeting in Burruss Hall stating the exact opposite.
As I read Andy’s courtroom notes I could only think that Flinchum’s actions do not comport with his testimony. The police chief not only violated the basic tenants of crime analysis, he violated common sense. The idea literally takes one’s breath away.
How could a man in such a position be so inept when faced with a murder scene? (To be continued)