By Zach Crizer
In the aftermath of the April 16, 2007, campus shootings at Virginia Tech in which shooter Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty members, all but two of the victims’ families settled with the university. However, the families of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde — two students who died in the Norris Hall shootings — refused the settlement and filed matching civil suits against the university. The suits originally included many individual university officials, but they have all been dropped, leaving the state to defend the university’s actions.
The plaintiffs claim the university was negligent, failing to uphold its duty to protect students by not alerting the campus community to shootings in West Ambler-Johnston Hall at about 7:10 a.m. on April 16, 2007. That incident in room 4040 of the residence hall resulted in the death of two students. More than two hours later, Cho proceeded to kill 30 people in Norris Hall, an academic building across campus. The plaintiffs argued last week that an earlier alert would have allowed students to make informed decisions about their safety and they may have avoided campus. The defense began its arguments Monday after the plaintiffs rested their case Friday.
Below you will find our updates from the trial in Montgomery County Circuit court.
Judge denies defense’s motion to dismiss the case
Judge William Alexander dismissed a motion by the Virginia attorneys representing the university to dismiss the case based on a lack of evidence. The defense team argued that the plaintiffs’ arguments failed to prove how the alleged negligence caused the deaths of the two students.
Defense attorney Mike Melis — of the Virginia Attorney General’s office — said Tech officials could not have foreseen the shootings in Norris Hall based on the West-Ambler Johnston incident. Furthermore, he argued that even if the alert had been sent earlier, it would have simply led to a different set of people in Norris Hall when Cho arrived.
“Cho was going to kill people that day. We would be dealing with a different set of victims if Tech had told people to stay in buildings,” Melis said.
He argued that the only way the threat was apparent was in hindsight.
Alexander denied the motion and brought the jury back into the courtroom. The defense began their arguments by calling several Blacksburg Police Department officials as witnesses. Monday morning’s witnesses were involved in the initial investigation of the West Ambler-Johnston shootings.
They repeatedly testified that they believed the shootings were a targeted, domestic incident. Emily Hilscher lived in West Ambler-Johnston room 4040, where the shootings took place. She was killed along with a partially clothed Ryan Clark — who was a resident adviser in the building. Blacksburg Police Department Detective Scott Craig interviewed Hilscher’s roommate, who wasn’t in the building at the time of the shooting. She said Hilscher had spent the weekend with her boyfriend, Radford student Karl Thornhill. The roommate said she was unaware of any problems with their relationship, but showed the detective pictures from a social network of Thornhill handling firearms — rifles and a “Western-style” pistol according to Craig’s testimony.
Craig spent the morning of April 16, 2007, chasing the lead to Thornhill. Police located him and pulled him over in a traffic stop. Craig had just arrived to interview him when he was called to the shootings in Norris Hall.
Blacksburg Chief of Police Kim Crannis takes stand
The defense team called Blacksburg Chief of Police Kim Crannis to the stand Monday morning to further discuss what investigators did following the West Ambler-Johnston shootings. Crannis was pressured during cross-examination by the plaintiffs to explain the thought process behind the investigation.
Crannis repeated that the officers on scene theorized the incident was a domestic dispute, pointing out the location of the room and the circumstances of the shooting did not appear to be a random act. Then, she cited the condition in which Clark, the resident adviser, was found.
“He was a young man in his underwear in a young lady’s room. You’re trying to develop the motive. We were still trying to develop who committed the crime,” she said.
The witnesses Monday said that information, along with the fact that there was no forced entry and no evidence of theft, led them to believe the shootings may have been domestic.
Crannis was also questioned about the timeline of events. She testified that she was informed of the shootings shortly before 8 a.m. that day and arrived at the residence hall to assist Virginia Tech Police shortly after 8 a.m. The plaintiffs’ legal team showed a clip of Tech President Charles Steger speaking at a press conference on the evening of April 16, 2007, in which he stated police were pursuing leads at 7:30 a.m. Crannis said she attended that press conference and two others, but cannot remember what was said and acknowledged that investigators had not arrived on the scene by 7:30 a.m.
“I don’t recall hearing anything untruthful,” she said. “But I don’t recall anything said at any of them.”
The plaintiffs also repeatedly questioned Crannis about a meeting with Col. Gerald Massengill — who investigated the shootings for the Governor’s Panel on Virginia Tech. The panel report included a timeline echoing Steger’s statement that leads were being pursued at 7:30 a.m. Crannis acknowledged she was in the meeting but said she didn’t recall discussing anything about the investigation at West Ambler-Johnston. She said the discussion focused on Norris Hall.
Crannis said she has never read the panel report, which was later corrected with a later time.
“I did not read the governor’s report,” she said. “I had no interest in re-living it.”
Of the investigation at West Ambler-Johnston, Crannis said the passage of time between the shootings added to the police belief that it was an isolated incident.
“We thought he had fled the scene and fled campus,” Crannis said. “Nothing else had occurred. We had a viable lead, but the passage of time was part of the discussion.”
The defense team’s arguments are currently ongoing. More reports coming later.