The checks and balances of the American legal system depend on zealous investigations. As information drips out about the behavior of the University of Virginia student who shot to death three fellow students and wounded two others on Nov. 13, the question of urgency arises again and again.
The latest revelation came last week in a New York Times report that the alleged killer, Christopher Darnell Jones, Jr., appeared rapping on social media in a YouTube video with a gun, while he talked about killing people. The video was posted in August 2021.
We concede that hindsight is 20/20. We also believe deconstructing and making changes based on the specific details of UVa’s actions before the mass shooting offer the best hope for keeping something like it from happening again on the Charlottesville campus or anywhere else.
A single video where a young man might simply be brandishing a toy gun and imitating pop stars who routinely use violent language is only valuable as it fits into a pattern of behavior that might have signaled the need for intervention.
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The video was posted two months after Jones received a suspended jail sentence for illegally carrying a concealed weapon and after a felony charge of leaving the scene of a vehicular accident had been pleaded down to a misdemeanor.
Individually, none of these incidents might set off alarms. Nobody would have any reason to look for them except that on Sept. 15, roughly two months before the killings, 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 put to rest.
This is where relentless investigative zeal must take over for the legal system to work. Had the university found it, the YouTube video would have combined with everything else UVa had heard or knew about Jones. It would have been one more signal to push the legal system to its limit.
The idea here is that you force the legal system to tell you no before you quit asking.
After learning of the gun rumor from the hazing investigation, the UVa Violence Prevention and Threat Assessment Committee looked into 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 did not press him for information when he refused to cooperate.
UVa did the right thing three days after the murders when it asked Virginia Attorney Jason Miyares to appoint an independent investigator to review the school’s actions.
Regardless of anything else a zealous investigation revealed, knowing that 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 if the university tried to get a search 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 has been a lot discussion about whether what was known about Jones before the mass shooting would have been enough to get a search warrant. Our position is that where firearms investigations turn up illegal behavior involving guns by the person you are investigating and deep dives into social media and other sources turn up potentially disturbing behavior, the obligation is to ask. You do so because the legal system allows it, even if it is against the odds.
American justice only works to the extent that people test it. Jones’ caching of firearms and accessories clearly violated UVa rules. Any suggestion that Jones might have a single gun was worth pursuing urgently and zealously 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.