Plaintiffs in Va. Tech shootings lawsuit rest case

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By STEVE SZKOTAK, Associated Press

CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. (AP) — Virginia Tech officials spent the last four days defending their actions during the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, telling opposing lawyers who peppered them with difficult questions that they did what they could under the grim circumstances.

Yet the father of one of the students slain in the April 16, 2007 campus attack tearfully explained how much of a difference a quicker response would have made.

"If they told the truth in the beginning, I wouldn't be here," Grafton W. Peterson, the father of Erin N. Peterson, told jurors. "Tell the truth."

Attorneys for the parents of slain students Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson concluded their presentation Friday to jurors in a wrongful death lawsuit against the state. The suit seeks $100,000 for each family; a full official accounting of events on that day in which 33 people — including the gunman — died; and an apology from university President Charles Steger.

They said if Virginia Tech responded immediately after two students — Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark — initially were shot in a dorm, others on campus — including the plaintiff's children — might have survived the killing spree of Seung-Hui Cho.

On Monday, attorneys representing the state are expected to begin their presentation in Montgomery County Circuit Court. The jury will weigh the arguments under a lower standard of proof than in a criminal trial.

During testimony on Friday, Steger denied that he erred on that tragic day.

"That's not my conclusion," he told attorneys for the parents. "We did the best we could ... based upon the information we had at the time."

Officials delayed sending a warning to avoid panic on campus and allow the university to identify the first two victims and contact their families, Steger said Friday. Cho shot and killed those students in a dormitory before continuing his attack hours later at a classroom building.

Attorneys for the state have maintained that officials believed the first two killings were domestic violence and did not pose a wider threat to campus. Steger stuck to that narrative during his testimony, saying he heeded the advice of Virginia Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum, who informed him that the dormitory deaths were an isolated act of violence.

"I was told that it was domestic and targeted," Steger said.

Steger said he was prepared to issue an earlier warning but a member of the leadership team that he gathered that morning said the parents of the dorm victims should be notified first.

The dorm shootings happened shortly after 7 a.m. but no campus-wide alert was issued until 9:26 that morning. An email only stated a "shooting incident" had occurred but did not mention the gunman remained at large. It urged students to "be cautious" but did not recommend any other action.

Asked by Robert T. Hall, an attorney for the parents, if the specific warning about the homicides and a gunman at large should have been issued earlier, Steger said, "There was no way we would know what would happen at Norris."

Norris Hall was the classroom building where Cho killed 30 of his victims.

At the conclusion of Hall's questioning, he asked Steger if he cared to say anything to the parents who filed the lawsuit. An attorney for the state, William Broaddus, immediately objected before Steger could answer.

The warning that a "gunman is loose on campus" was released through "blast" emails to everyone on campus at 9:50 a.m., nearly 10 minutes after Cho had chained the doors of the building.

Broaddus then asked Steger if he called his wife and son, who were both on campus, to alert them of the earlier shootings or if he locked the door of his office. Steger replied: "No, sir."

The parents of Pryde and Peterson looked intently at Steger during his testimony.

During earlier testimony, a crisis manager hired by Tech said Steger believed he did not owe parents an apology for his actions on April 16 because an apology would imply errors on his part.

According to a deposition read at trial, crisis manager Karen Doyne was asked whether Steger felt an apology was inappropriate and she replied, "That was my impression, at least publicly."

It was unclear from the deposition when the idea of an apology was rejected. The consultants said they worked with Steger for a year, during which time Doyne said she had 10 or 15 conversations with him.

The crisis management consultants were hired in the weeks after the shooting as more than 500 reporters descended on the Blacksburg campus.

The Prydes and the Petersons were the only eligible families who didn't accept their share of an $11 million state settlement.

A state panel that investigated the shootings concluded that officials erred in not sending an alert earlier. The lag in issuing a campus warning also brought Virginia Tech a $55,000 fine from the U.S. Education Department. The school is appealing.

The parents' attorneys concluded their presentation to jurors with the tearful testimony in which the girls' parents told of their grim journeys to Virginia Tech, not knowing if their daughters had survived the shootings.

Grafton Peterson said he immediately left work in Maryland when he heard of the shootings and was told his daughter was alive and in a hospital, only to be told she was dead.

"She was my best friend. She was my baby," he said of his daughter, who would now be 24.

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Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.

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