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Jury says Virginia Tech negligent for delays in warnings about 2007 shootings

Alan Kim / The Roanoke Times

View the anxious aftermath of the campus shooting and how students began to deal with their shock and grief.

Updated at 4:40 p.m. ET: CHRISTIANSBURG, Va. – A jury found Virginia Tech negligent Wednesday for delaying warnings in response to the first shootings in the 2007 massacre that left 33 dead on the campus.

Jurors returned the verdict in a wrongful death civil suit brought by the parents of two students who were killed on April 16, 2007, in the most deadly mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Jurors deliberated for 3 ½ hours.

The families of Erin Peterson and Julia Pryde, each awarded $4 million, said the two might be alive today if Virginia Tech police and administrators warned the campus of two shootings in a dorm 2 ½ hours before Seung-Hui Cho ended his killing spree, then killed himself.

The state immediately filed a motion to reduce the award. State law requires the award to be capped at $100,000, but jurors weren't told of the cap.

Attorneys for the state have countered that there was no way to anticipate the man who committed those first two shootings April 16 in a dormitory would carry out the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history. Police had initially concluded the first shootings were isolated. Both shooting victims later died.

Jurors were charged with deciding whether Tech police and administrators could have reasonably foreseen a danger to the campus after the dorm shootings. Thirty more killings followed hours later at Norris Hall, a classroom building.

"The university's contention has been all along, to quote president [Charles] Steger 'We did everything we could do,"' said Robert T. Hall, an attorney for the parents. "Obviously the jury didn't buy that."

The verdict was met immediately by sobs from Peterson's mother, Celeste, while the Prydes didn't show much emotion.

Matt Gentry / AP

Defense attorneys Peter Messitt, right, and William "Bill" Broaddus, left, hold a map of the fourth floor of West Ambler Johnston Hall on the Virginia Tech campus in Montgomery County Circuit Court in Christiansburg, Va. on Wednesday before jurors began deliberating a lawsuit filed by the parents of two students slain in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre.

"Today we got what we wanted," Celeste Peterson said afterward. "The truth is out there, and that's all we ever wanted. We came here for the truth."

Circuit Judge William Alexander said it was the hardest case he had been a part of.

"My heart goes out to all of you," he said to the families of victims.

Virginia Tech officials said they were disappointed with the verdict.

“We do not believe that evidence presented at trial relative to the murders in West Ambler Johnston created an increased danger to the campus that day,” university spokesman Mark Owczarski said in a prepared statement obtained by NBC News.  “We will discuss this matter with the attorney general, carefully review the case, and explore all of the options available. The heinous crimes committed by Seung-Hui Cho were an unprecedented act of violence that no one could have foreseen.”

Hall earlier had said the families were interested in holding school officials accountable, not money.

Evidence of the magnitude of the error, Hall said, "were the bodies of the young people on the floors of Norris Hall."

"That's why these two families are here seeking accountability," Hall said in his 45-minute closing argument to jurors.

One of the state's attorneys, Peter R. Messitt, said Tech officials could not be expected to anticipate the killing spree, calling the slaughter unprecedented "in the history of higher education" and "one of the most horrible days in America."

"What happened at Norris Hall was not reasonably foreseeable," he told jurors.

This article includes reporting by The Associated Press.

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