“As the danger rises, the duty to warn is enhanced,” he said.
But, throughout the defense’s arguments, it claimed the university officials making decisions that morning — the policy group — believed the suspect had left campus. First responders found Hilscher and Clark in Hilscher’s dorm room — on the fourth floor of West AJ near the elevator and a janitorial closet. Clark wasn’t wearing pants other than his boxer shorts.
Combining his attire with the seemingly isolated room where the incident occurred, multiple investigating officers testified they felt confident it had been a domestic incident. Blacksburg Police Chief Kim Crannis said several expert witnesses said the most logical theory of the West AJ crime painted it as an isolated domestic incident.
When Hall cross-examined Kay Heidbreder, the university’s general counsel and a policy group member, she said Tech President Charles Steger and other officials who assembled in Burruss Hall that morning were following advice of police who said suspects in that type of crime “generally” flee the area.
Police further embraced the theory when Hilscher’s roommate, Heather Hall returned to her dorm and was interviewed. She told detectives Hilscher had been with her boyfriend, Karl Thornhill, that weekend. She also showed the investigators social media photos of Thornhill handling weapons.
The trial also contained lengthy discussions and testimony about the timeline of events surrounding the lead to Thornhill. University statements and the original Governor’s Report on Tech said investigators had a lead in the case at 7:30 a.m., less than 15 minutes after first responders arrived. The report was later corrected to show that Heather Hall did not arrive at West AJ until 8:16 a.m., a fact acknowledged by the detective who interviewed her.
Throughout the trial, Hall — the plaintiffs’ attorney — questioned witnesses about their knowledge of the false time printed in the report.
Yesterday, Hall’s closing argument asserted that the theory was not strong enough to eliminate the possibility of a threat on campus, acknowledging the expert testimony pointing to the domestic incident theory as the most likely explanation of the West AJ crime.
“One of the issues that plagued this case was how a probability transitioned to certainty,” he said.
He went on to label the officials’ thought process a “fatal leap,” and recalled from testimony that certain things were known that morning that weakened the theory. Ed Spencer, currently Tech’s vice president for student affairs, went to West AJ that morning just before 8 a.m.
He was then the assistant vice president for student affairs and intended to assist investigators with anything they needed in the residence hall. His testimony revealed that he knew Clark — the resident adviser who was killed in Hilscher’s room in his boxer shorts. Spencer praised Clark as one of the best RAs on campus at the time. He also testified that he informed Flinchum that Clark was “active in the gay community” — a piece of information that never reached the policy group.
Heidbreder’s testimony indicated that Steger took Flinchum’s word that it was likely domestic and did not pose a threat to the campus. Hall’s argument posited that the policy group failed to protect the campus because it accepted the theory as the likely explanation instead of viewing it as one option.
“They took one of the possibilities and said ‘that’s it,’” Hall said during his closing argument. “The blinders went on.”
Messitt, in his closing argument for the university, countered that the policy group made a reasonable decision by taking advice from the investigating officers.
“Highly trained and highly experienced investigators thought there was no further threat,” he said.
In a previously unstated piece of evidence, Messitt’s closing argument revealed Flinchum advised Zenobia Hikes — then the vice president for student affairs — to not reveal details of the shooting in an alert. Previously, it had just been stated that Hikes opposed releasing the information that one student was dead and another wounded in the initial alert.
According to testimony, this was the major debate in deciding the contents of the initial campus notice, which was sent nearly two-and-a-half hours after the West AJ shootings. Larry Hincker, the university spokesman and a policy group member, had drafted a notice prior to the meeting that included information on the severity of the shootings. But Flinchum’s advice relayed through Hikes was heeded, and the information was removed.
That first notice only referenced “a shooting incident” in West AJ and promised more information later.
Messitt proceeded to argue that there was no reason to doubt the police theory at the time. He showed jurors a map of West AJ and wondered aloud how a shooter would pick that location randomly. He repeatedly referred to the defense’s witnesses’ testimony that the crime appeared “isolated” and “targeted.”