msnbc.com and NBC News
updated 3/25/2008 7:54:54 PM ET 2008-03-25T23:54:54

Lawyers and families of the victims of the Virginia Tech massacre, who have less than a week to decide whether to give up their right to sue in exchange for $100,000 apiece, criticized the offer Tuesday, saying it was negotiated in secret and would hold no one accountable.

At least 20 families have filed claims against the state of Virginia in connection with the shootings, in which a disturbed student killed 32 people and himself last year on the university’s campus in Blacksburg.

The settlement proposal would require all the families to agree to waive their rights to sue, and it set a deadline of next Monday.

Gov. Tim Kaine said Tuesday that the deal had been in the works for several months, but relatives of some of the victims complained that the state negotiated only with the Washington-based attorneys for about 20 families and said they were frozen out of the discussions.

Legal sources familiar with the negotiations, who spoke to NBC affiliate WRC-TV of Washington on condition of anonymity, confirmed that other attorneys were not consulted. Bode & Grenier, the Washington law firm that negotiated the settlement, did not return calls for comment Tuesday.

Mother denounces ‘business as usual’
Celeste Peterson, whose daughter Erin was killed in the attack on April 16, said the settlement did not meet her main objective: accountability for administrators.    

“There is nobody who is even attempting to offer an apology, nobody who has been asked to step down,” Peterson told WRC on Tuesday. “It’s like, ‘OK, let’s hurry up and dismiss this and get on with business as usual.’”

Vincent Bove, a New Jersey crime prevention consultant who is advising several families of the victims, said some might have no choice but to accept the offer because “they lost the breadwinners in their families.”

But he said he would counsel the families to reject the offer, which he called “money to hush you from demanding that the truth come to the surface of why these poor decisions were made that could have prevented this violence from occurring.”

“What they’ve always wanted from the beginning is not a financial settlement, but what they want is accountability and consequences for the lack of leadership that led to the tragedy,” Bove said of the families he advises.

Opportunity to speak with officials
A lawyer familiar with the proposal told WRC that under the deal, the families of those who were killed would receive $100,000 apiece. Another $800,000 would be reserved for injured survivors, while a separate fund would reimburse expenses not covered by insurance for medical, psychological and psychiatric care for victims and their immediate families. Survivors would also be eligible for reduced-cost health insurance.

A $3.5 million public-purpose fund would be created to fund charitable causes and could provide additional hardship payments to families, the attorney said. Kaine would meet with victims and relatives three times over the next two years to review legislative and administrative responses to the shootings, and victims and their families could also meet with senior Virginia Tech officials to discuss changes at the campus since the tragedy.

Kaine said Tuesday that he was “disappointed” by the reaction to the offer.

“There’s a lot more than that, and some of it is not even monetary,” the governor said in an interview with NBC affiliate WSLS-TV of Roanoke. “Some of it is focused on law reform efforts, like the mental health reforms. It’s a broad discussion, and again we’re trying to be creative about it.

“At the end of the day, everybody is going to have a choice to make,” he said. “Some families are looking at lawsuits or whatever, and they can choose. This is all voluntary.”

By Alex Johnson of msnbc.com with Julie Carey of WRC-TV in Washington and Ashley Roberts of WSLS-TV in Roanoke, Va.

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