CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. – Jury selection opened Monday in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the parents of two Virginia Tech students killed during a campus rampage nearly five years ago.
The trial is being held in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg. University officials will be asked to defend their actions of April 16, 2007, when a student gunman killed 32 people and then himself on the Blacksburg campus. It was the most deadly shooting spree in modern U.S. history.
The jury pool was being drawn from the county, home to Virginia Tech, with attorneys selecting nine jurors, including two alternates from among 50 prospects.
"I know all of you have heard about the shootings that occurred on April 16, 2007," Circuit Judge William Alexander told jury prospects filling benches in one half of the courtroom. "Just because you know something does not disqualify you from the jury."
One prospective juror was released after she said she knew one of the victims. By the end of the day, the pool had been winnowed to 17 people. Prospects will return to court on Tuesday, when a seven-member jury and two alternates are empaneled.
Opening statements will follow.
Top Virginia Tech officials, including President Charles Steger, are scheduled to testify in the trial brought by the parents of Julia K. Pryde and Erin N. Peterson. Those families have said they are seeking a full accounting of the morning of the campus carnage.
The Prydes and the Petersons were the only eligible Virginia Tech families who didn't accept their share of an $11 million state settlement.
Their attorney, Robert Hall, has said he will show that university officials botched the response to the 2007 shootings by waiting more than two hours to alert the campus after the first two victims were fatally gunned down in a dormitory. Steger, who has defended his actions and the actions of other campus officials, will be testifying publicly under oath for the first time, Hall said.
"There isn't one person on that campus who hasn't wondered, 'That could have been me,' " Hall said in an interview before trial.
Hall has said Steger also sought to cover up the university's actions, an accusation the state has labeled false. The university has said the suit has no merit.
A state panel that investigated the shootings concluded that officials erred in not sending an alert earlier. The delay in issuing a campus warning also cost Virginia Tech a $55,000 fine from the U.S. Education Department. The school is appealing.
Hall has listed more than 30 witnesses he intends to call, including the chief of the campus police force. The state's witness list totals approximately 50 people.
Alexander told prospective jurors he expects the trial to last one week, but warned it could run into next week. Several prospects said that presented problems for them.