Attorneys representing the families of two victims of the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings on Tuesday described campus police as bumbling and slow to react, while attorneys representing the state of Virginia defended university officials who believed a domestic incident led to the initial deaths instead of a campus-wide threat.
The families of Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson are seeking $100,000 for each family in the wrongful death claim. They have said their primary interest is to get a full accounting of the events of that day, plus an apology.
Attorneys for the victim's parents have said if the university responded immediately after the shootings of the two students in the dorm, others on campus might have survived the April 16, 2007, killing spree of Seung-Hui Cho.
Peter R. Messitt, one of the attorneys representing the state in the civil wrongful death case, said in hindsight, the belief of university officials that the initial killings in a dormitory on the Blacksburg campus arose from a domestic incident was wrong.
"What happened later that morning was unimaginable," Messitt said in his opening statement of the 30 other people who would be killed before a student gunman killed himself.
Plaintiffs' attorney Michael A. Kernbach described to jurors the bloody scene at West Ambler Johnston Hall, where the first two students — Emily Hilscher and Ryan Clark — were shot.
Virginia Tech campus police were sent to the dorm and concluded almost immediately that the two died in a domestic killing, he said. Both victims suffered horrific gunshot injuries. Clark was found dead at the scene and Hilscher died later.
Thirteen bloody footprints led away from the blood-splattered room where they were found, meaning a suspect would have had blood on his shoes and likely blood on his clothing, making him an easy target for police to track, Kernbach said.
Officers who had never investigated a homicide were the first to arrive at the scene. They concluded the deaths were from a domestic incident, he said. An hour later, students were on the way to classes on the 2,000-acre campus.
"The Virginia Tech Police Department didn't tell anyone that a gunman was loose on the campus," he said.
University officials issued their warning to more than 30,000 on the campus more than 2 1/2 hours later — shortly before Cho chained the doors of Norris Hall, a classroom building, and killed 30 more, including Pryde and Peterson. He then killed himself.
Police were focused on finding Hilscher's boyfriend, Karl Thornhill, who was arrested as he approached the Tech campus after a friend reported a shooting incident at Hilscher's dorm. He was quickly eliminated as a suspect.
"Nobody was looking for someone wearing bloody clothes and bloody tennis shoes," he said.
That left students in a "zone of danger," he said.
Robert Hall, another attorney for the families, ended his opening statements by showing jurors photos of Pryde and Peterson. Their parents, who were seated with their attorneys, either sobbed or looked away.
Messitt said police used evidence at the dormitory shooting — including there was no signs of forced entry — to conclude Hilscher and Clark were victims of a domestic killing. Cho was "so unremarkable" he was able to enter one of the largest dorms on campus, fire a 9mm-handgun at two students and walk away, he said.
"He shot two people and nobody saw him," Messitt said. The first calls to police reported that someone might have fallen out of a loft bed.
Cho, he said, "set out to slaughter as many students as he could," adding that the gunman was "intent on human destruction."
Tech Police Chief Wendell Flinchum, who is scheduled to testify on Wednesday, did not believe there was a threat on campus based upon his officers' reports from the scene, Messitt said.
"If he believed there was a threat to that campus, he would have issued an alert," Messitt said.
While Messitt acknowledged that "mistakes were made, they were few and far between."
"This is a heartbreaking case," he said.
Attorneys for the Prydes and Petersons called their first witnesses Tuesday, including Thornhill, the "person of interest" who diverted police attention from Cho, and others, who said the university had not balked in the past to issue campus-wide alerts for seemingly minor events.
Hall has also said Tech President Charles W. Steger attempted to cover up the university's response. The state has called that claim false, saying Hall has produced no evidence to support his contention.
Steger is not named as a defendant, but he is scheduled to testify publicly under oath for the first time on his actions on the day of the shootings.
The lawsuits originally sought $10 million for the wrongful deaths of Pryde and Peterson, but the damages are now capped at $100,000 for each of their parents. The state is the lone defendant in the case, which has been scaled back from the lawsuit originally filed two years after the deadly shootings on Virginia Tech's campus.
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 Prydes and the Petersons were the only eligible families who didn't accept their share of an $11 million state settlement.
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap.