Whatever our politics — Democrat, Republican, Tea Party, Green Party — we share a common expectation that our courts will treat us fairly. When a court renders a major decision based on false information — especially when that court is the Virginia Supreme Court — it should disturb everyone.
It is unusual for a state Supreme Court, or the United States Supreme Court, for that matter, to overturn a jury verdict. But on October 31, 2013, the Virginia Supreme Court did just that: It overturned a jury verdict in the Pryde and Peterson lawsuit against Virginia Tech holding the school liable for not warning the campus on April 16, 2007, after a double homicide had taken place at West Ambler Johnston Hall. About two hours after that incident, Seung-Hui Cho killed another 30 people and wounded 17 before killing himself.
Justice Cleo E. Powell who wrote the unanimous decision, stated that “under the facts of this case, there was no duty for the Commonwealth to warn students about the potential for criminal acts by third parties.” She then got one of the most critical facts wrong—who was in charge of the investigation that day following the initial shooting at West Ambler Johnson Hall.
Powell wrote that the Blacksburg Police Department was in charge: “Although officers from the Virginia Tech Police Department were the first on the scene, the Blacksburg Police Department led the investigation.” In fact, Chief Wendell Flinchum of the Virginia Tech Police Department was in charge. If Blacksburg Chief Kimberly Crannis had been, there would have been no duty to warn because she did not have that authority. Chief Flinchum did have the authority to warn and lockdown.
To cite Crannis as the person in charge is not only a major blunder in the historical record, but sets a precedent that incorrect facts central to a major decision are acceptable. Five times, people testified under oath that it was Chief Flinchum and not Blacksburg’s Chief Crannis. Having gone through more than five volumes of trial testimony, I can find no reference to Chief Crannis being in charge.
The identity of who was in charge is important because Virginia Tech had in place all the means necessary to warn and lockdown the campus on April 16, 2007. Over two and one half hours elapsed between the double homicide and the mass murder in Norris Hall. So, more than a year after the Supreme Court ruling, the question persists, why didn’t the university issue a warning?
Eight months earlier, the Virginia Tech administration had set a standard for warning the university community. In the fall of 2006, a prisoner in the Blacksburg jail, William Morva, escaped and killed two people. There was no indication that Morva was on or near the campus, yet Virginia Tech warned and locked the campus down.
But on April 16, 2007, there was a double murder in the middle of the campus. Thirteen bloody foot prints led from the crime scene to an exit stairwell; there were spent bullet shells on the floor but no weapon. The school issued no warning even though it was obvious the killer was on the loose. Had a lockdown of the campus been implemented, lives would have been saved. The administrative failure allowed two students to go to their French class where they were among the first of the 30 students and teachers killed in Norris Hall.
The Virginia Supreme Court declined to hold anyone accountable for anyone else’s actions in the Virginia Tech massacre. The Court is entitled to its opinions, but not its own facts.