Virginia Tech's president on Friday defended his actions during the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, saying in court: “I tried my best.”
President Charles Steger testified for two hours at a wrongful death trial brought by the families of two students killed during the April 16, 2007, campus attack. The civil suit claims university officials delayed warning the campus of the initial two shootings in a dormitory and then attempted to cover up their missteps. In the end, 33 people including the gunman were dead.
Steger said that officials delayed sending a warning to avoid panic on campus and allow the university to identify the first two victims and contact their families. Student gunman Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed those students in a dormitory before continuing his attack hours later at a classroom building.
Asked by an attorney for the parents if he erred, Steger said, “That's not my conclusion. We did the best we could ... based upon the information we had at the time.”
At the conclusion of Robert T. 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 parents have said they want an apology from Steger.
Attorneys for the families of Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson claim their daughters and others might have survived if the university had warned the students earlier of the first slayings.
They concluded their presentation to jurors Friday after four days of testimony, ending 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. Erin Peterson's father 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,” Grafton W. Peterson said of his daughter, who would be 24.
“If they told the truth in the beginning, I wouldn't be here,” he told jurors. “Tell the truth.”
The state is expected to begin its presentation on Monday in Montgomery County Circuit Court. Attorneys for the state, the defendant in the case, 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. He said 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 occurred shortly after 7 a.m. but no campus-wide alert was issued until 9:26 a.m. 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 Hall 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.
The warning that a “gunman is loose on campus” was released through “blast” emails to everyone on campus at 9:50 a.m., almost 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 are seeking $100,000 each and a full official accounting of events that day. A jury of seven in the civil trial will weigh the arguments. They 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.