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Parents of two slain at Va. Tech appeal to justices

Attorneys for the families of two Virginia Tech students killed in an April 2007 campus massacre are renewing their bid to put the university’s president on trial.

In a petition for rehearing, the attorneys are seeking a full state Supreme Court hearing on their quest to bring President Charles Steger to trial for negligence in the deaths of Erin Nicole Peterson and Julian K. Pryde. A three-judge writ panel denied that request in February after hearing arguments from the parents’ attorneys.

The attorneys argue both women might have survived the slaughter by Seung-Hui Cho (sung-wee joh) if Steger and other officials didn’t delay alerting the Blacksburg community of the first two shootings on campus on April 16, 2007. Before Cho killed himself, he had slain 32 students and faculty in the deadliest shooting rampage in modern U.S. history.

The women’s parents won a negligence lawsuit against the state one year ago, but the state Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal of that jury verdict, probably in June. Citing trial errors, the state wants the justices to set aside the verdict and order a new trial.

Robert T. Hall, an attorney representing the Pryde and Peterson families, has insisted that Steger should be held accountable for the campus shootings. “The buck stops with Steger,” he said after arguments before the writ panel.

Hall and appeal attorney L. Steven Emmert contend “the trial court mistakenly dismissed a case of enormous public importance” by removing Steger from the negligence trial. The state was the lone defendant.

Steger was initially named in the parents’ lawsuit but was exempted by a judge before trial on a legal technicality. The justices on the panel that denied the parents a hearing on the Steger matter said they found no reversible error by the judge who excluded Steger from the suit.

Steger’s civil culpability in the Tech killings should be decided on the merits, “given the extraordinary importance of the issues in this case,” the parents’ attorneys wrote in a petition filed Monday.

Jurors in Christiansburg returned their negligent finding against the state last March and awarded each family $4 million in damages. A judge later reduced the damages to $100,000 for each family, the state cap on such awards.

The basis of the suit was Steger’s decision to delay a campus-wide alert of the first two shootings by Cho at a dormitory, even though he remained at large. Police investigators at the scene concluded the first shootings had all the signs of a domestic dispute and advised Steger that the gunman did not pose a threat to the larger campus.

Pryde and Peterson were killed hours later after Cho chained the doors of a classroom building and killed 30 before killing himself.

– By Steve Szkotak

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