by Travis Handy
CHRISTIANSBURG, Va.-The jury found in favor of the parents of Julia Pryde and Erin Peterson, two of the victims of the April 16, 2007 campus shootings, and awarded each of the families $4 million in damages. It is not likely that the families will receive that amount, as Virginia law caps the amount of damages obtainable in civil cases against the Commonwealth at $100,000.
Pryde and Peterson’s family members were very emotional the verdict was read, as sobs of happiness could be heard from the parents who had waited nearly five years for some sense of closure in the matter. The two families alleged that Virginia Tech was accountable for their daughters’ deaths due to a failure to issue a timely warning to the campus community as the events of April 16th unfolded. They asserted throughout the case that had their daughters known there was a gunman on the loose, they would not have been in class when the massacre occurred.
Judge William Alexander commended both sides in the case for their conduct in the courtroom and for the sensitive manner in which the trial had been handled, as he commented that this was the most difficult case he had ever been involved with. He also offered his sincere condolences to the Peterson and Pryde families.
“My heart goes out to all of you for the loss you have suffered. I know no amount of money can ever make up for your loss. I can’t possibly understand what you are going through, but I just want to say that I am very sorry,” said Alexander.
Outside the courthouse, Lori Haas, whose daughter, Emily Haas, survived after being shot in her Norris Hall classroom on the day in question, said that “the verdict speaks for itself.” She was not so sure about whether the verdict would bring closure to the families of the victims.
“That word is so different for every situation, my daughter is still alive. There will never be closure, like I said, 33 people are dead,” said Haas.
The thirty-third person Haas was referring to was the gunman, Seung-Hui Cho. Haas said she believed the university had failed him as well, as a mentally ill individual who was crying out for help.
The Peterson family insisted that the case was not about the money, but a pursuit of the truth, which they felt had won the day.
“We came here for the truth,” said Celeste Peterson, Erin Peterson’s mother.
“We did this because of Erin. She always put herself in a position to speak for others who couldn’t speak for themselves. She couldn’t speak anymore, so we had to do it… we had to,” said Peterson.
The Petersons also spoke about Erin’s love for Virginia Tech and how it made her feel safe where she was.
“My daughter loved Virginia Tech … She was doing so well there, and she loved it. And that love translated to trust. She felt secure and safe there. And that’s what kids should feel, as much as they can possibly be,” said Peterson.
William Broaddus, an attorney representing the Commonwealth of Virginia in the case, reiterated sympathy for the families involved, and said the incident was “unforeseen and unforeseeable.”
“The events of Norris Hall have already had far-reaching consequences,” said Broaddus. “It has already resulted in tremendous change in the way things are done.”
Broaddus indicated that the Commonwealth plans to appeal the case. That process begins with the Attorney General’s office, where it will be decided if they want to argue that appeal, leaving the possibility that Wednesday’s verdict is not the last word in the case.