As the nation looks to Gov. Timothy M. Kaine's commission to answer questions raised by the April 16 massacre at Virginia Tech, the panel could face limits on its authority that would hinder its ability to answer key questions about the tragedy.
Unlike a court or a congressional inquiry, panel members said they will not have the power to subpoena people to give testimony. Because of laws protecting privacy, the commission is not sure how deeply it can probe Seung Hui Cho's mental condition in the months leading up to the rampage that left Cho and 32 of his victims dead.
Commission members also want to hear from Cho's parents and sister, although they can't compel them to talk. And the panel is trying to figure out what evidence state police can turn over to them.
Philip S. Schaenman, the commission's staff director, said the eight-member panel might have to seek a series of legal opinions to help focus the investigation and determine what information it can review. The first meeting could be next week.
"The mental issues will definitely be on the agenda, but how far you go hasn't been decided," said Schaenman, president of TriData Corp., an Arlington County company that is staffing the commission.
The uncertainty comes as Kaine and campus officials across the country are raising the stakes on the panel's findings. Kaine has been telling audiences the panel's recommendation will influence his policies on gun control, campus safety and mental health services.
"This commission can make a huge impact and do enormous good and save lives if they do it right," said former New Jersey governor Thomas H. Kean (R), who headed the commission that spent two years investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Retired Virginia State Police superintendent W. Gerald Massengill, who oversaw the inquiry into Virginia's response to the Washington area sniper shootings in 2002, is chairman of the Virginia Tech panel. The panel includes specialists in psychology, law, forensics and higher education as well as former U.S. homeland security director Tom Ridge.
Massengill said he wants the panel to conduct "a case study into everything that has happened. All the areas that this tragedy touched, we have the expertise to look at."
Although the commission will not establish goals until its first meeting, several panel members said they want a few key questions answered, including how Cho acquired his weapons and why the campus was not locked down during the 2 1/2 hour lull in the rampage.
Cho's mental state and the health services he received from the state or university should be scrutinized, Kaine and commission members said.
"As we look at this entire incident, I think this is going to be the most important piece, knowing his entire mental health history," Kaine said in a radio interview this week. "I think we are going to learn about the mental health system and gaps in the mental health system."
Medical records status unclear
In 2005, Virginia Tech officials referred Cho to a psychiatric hospital for evaluation after he hinted at suicide. There he was assessed as mentally ill but was released because he was deemed not to be an imminent danger to himself or others, according to court documents.
Police visited New River Community Services in Blacksburg after the shootings to search for Cho's medical records, according to court documents.
Last year, Virginia Chief Justice Leroy R. Hassell Sr. created the Mental Health Law Reform Commission to study the state's mental health system, including criteria for placing someone in emergency treatment, which require that person to be an imminent danger to himself or others. The commission is not supposed to finish its work until next summer. The staff director said the Virginia Tech panel could provide valuable information.
Even though Virginia Tech officials and law enforcement officials have pledged to cooperate with Kaine's commission, it remains unclear whether Cho's medical and academic records can be viewed by the panel.
"At this point, I have been given no information as to what power we will have and what information we will be given," said Diane M. Strickland, a commission member and former circuit court judge in Roanoke who wants the panel to study the interface between the mental health and criminal justice systems.
Under Virginia law, police agencies are not supposed to release a victim's medical and financial records. Police can also withhold details of their tactical plans and are not required to release information involving their interaction with Virginia Tech's police force, whose officers were the initial responders at the two shooting sites. Federal law prohibits Virginia Tech from releasing Cho's academic records without his parents' permission.
Massengill said the commission probably will ask Cho's parents, who left their Centreville home the day of the shooting, to cooperate. "I think until you sit down and talk to them, it is really unknown what issues, what concerns they have, regarding the problem all of us know this young man had," Massengill said.
'Better intelligence gathering'
Former congressman Lee Hamilton, president and director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, who has served on numerous government commissions, said the Virginia Tech panel needs to have broad access.
"If there is a sense they are not talking to the right people or seeing the right documents, it will lessen the impact of the commission," Hamilton said.
Robin Hattersley Gray, executive editor of Campus Safety Magazine, said the panel's review gives colleges a major opportunity to adjust their security and mental health procedures.
"After Columbine, K-12th-grade campuses have gotten a lot better at recognizing students who may be prone to violent behavior before they carry out the events, and it is my hope the Virginia Tech incident will do the same thing by helping colleges develop better intelligence gathering," Gray said.
Kean, a former president of Drew University in Madison, N.J., said the panel could help establish guidelines for colleges to deal with emotionally disturbed students.
"Universities need to understand ways to make intervention not only possible but mandated," Kean said.
But Gordon Davies, a member of the Virginia Tech commission who was a past director of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, said the panel will need to tread lightly while considering recommendations on dealing with students suspected of having emotional problems.
He referred to a biography he read about Albert Einstein. "He was a pretty strange guy, but you would not want to create an environment in which you would not accept Albert Einstein as a student because he is a bit odd," Davies said.
But the panel has to establish realistic goals about what it can accomplish this summer. Besides providing recommendations for colleges this fall, Kaine said he wants to make sure the General Assembly has time to review the report before the legislative session begins in January.
Kean said he thinks the Virginia Tech panel is "going to need more time."
"Don't trade off trying to get it through quickly by sacrificing the kind of recommendations that are intelligent, long-lasting and well-thought-out, so they can benefit every college in the country," he said.