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Test the legal system to make it work before tragedies

The checks and balances of the American justice system depend on diligent investigations. As information trickles out about the behavior of the University of Virginia student who shot and killed three fellow students and wounded two others on November 13, the issue of urgency comes up again and again.

The latest revelation came last week in a New York Times report that the alleged killer, Christopher Darnell Jones, Jr., appeared on social media in a YouTube video with a gun, talking about the killing of people. The video was posted in August 2021.

We admit that hindsight is 20/20. We also believe that deconstructing and making changes based on the specifics of UVa’s actions prior to the mass shooting offers the best hope of preventing something like this from happening again on the Charlottesville campus or anywhere else.

A single video where a young man may be simply brandishing a toy gun and mimicking pop stars who frequently use violent language is valuable only because it fits into a pattern of behavior that may have indicated the need for intervention.

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The video was posted two months after Jones received a suspended prison sentence for illegally carrying a concealed weapon and after a felony charge of leaving the scene of a vehicle accident was pleaded to a misdemeanor.

Individually, none of these incidents may trigger alarms. No one would have had any reason to look for them except that on Sept. 15, about two months before the murders, UVa officials investigating a hazing incident learned that Jones had told someone he had a gun. Hazing usually involves bullying. Rumors of guns can involve deadly violence and must be stopped.

This is where unrelenting investigative zeal must take over for the legal system to work. If the university had found it, the YouTube video would have combined with everything UVa heard or knew about Jones. It would have been another signal to push the justice system to its limits.

The idea here is that you force the legal system to tell you no before you stop asking.

After hearing the rumors of the firearms from the hazing investigation, the UVa Violence Prevention and Threats Committee investigated Jones deeply enough to find the concealed weapons charge and traffic charge. But the school does not appear to have confronted Jones face-to-face about the gun rumor. Instead, it appears to have contacted him remotely and not pressed him for information when he refused to cooperate.

UVa did the right thing three days after the killings when it asked Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares to appoint an independent investigator to review the school’s actions.

Regardless of anything else, a diligent investigation revealed that knowing Jones stored a semi-automatic rifle, pistol and partially loaded 30-round clips in his on-campus apartment would have brought intervention. The biggest question hanging over the investigation is whether the university tried to get a warrant for Jones’ room before the shooting. And if not, why not? The Daily Progress obtained a search warrant that was requested and issued to Virginia State Police the day after the murders, when it was too late to do any good.

By the time someone asked for a search warrant, D’Sean Perry, Lavel Davis, Jr., and Devin Chandler were dead, and Mike Hollins and Marlee Morgan were wounded.

There was much discussion about whether what was known about Jones before the mass shooting would be enough to get a search warrant. Our position is that where firearms investigations turn up illegal behavior involving guns by the person you’re investigating and deep diving into social media and other sources turns up potentially disturbing behavior, the obligation is to ask. You do it because the legal system allows it, even if it’s against the odds.

American justice only works to the extent that people test it. Jones’ cache of firearms and accessories clearly violated UVa rules. Any suggestion that Jones had a single gun was worth pursuing urgently and diligently to the extent of the law. Based on what was found, a judge may or may not have agreed to issue a search warrant for Jones’ room before the mass shooting. But that decision belonged to a judge. That’s how we do it in our legal system. And that’s how it works best for everyone involved.

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