Bar News - October 19, 2016
Lives Lost, Lessons Learned
By: Carol Robidoux
NH Lawyer’s Cousin Was Among Victims in VA Tech Massacre
Matthew La Porte, 20, one of the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 is credited with saving lives through his heroic acts.
There is something painfully poetic about the nearly 10-year journey Jennifer Stralka has undertaken. In April of 2007 she was a junior attorney practicing environmental law in her home state of New Jersey when she learned her cousin, Matthew La Porte, 20, was among the 32 students and faculty members killed in the Virginia Tech campus massacre that also left 17 injured.
But in the aftermath of what has been called one of the deadliest shootings in US history, Stralka was able to come to the aid of her family by providing legal counsel, and learned in the process that her cousin’s self-sacrificing valor in the moments before his own death, helped save the lives of others.
And so it is certainly not lost on Stralka that, after much personal soul searching and professional adjusting, she finds herself working today on a college campus – at Dartmouth College, as contract manager for procurement services – and as an adjunct professor of law at Vermont Law School. In her downtime, she has been refining lessons learned along the way, including those related to campus security policy and legal loopholes that, if closed, might have prevented the Virginia Tech shooter, Seung Hui Cho, who was known to have suffered from mental illness and violent tendencies, from purchasing the weapons he used to carry out the shootings.
One of her goals is to share this information with her fellow New Hampshire Bar members, and get some conversations going about strengthening New Hampshire laws that could reduce the likelihood that such a tragedy could happen here. (See Stralka’s accompanying article)
“Sharing my cousin’s story has been cathartic. I feel that I’ve learned a lot from it, and I’m enjoying the opportunity to share the experience of representing my family in such a difficult time,” says Stralka. “Not as a painful one, but as a lesson for a young attorney – in understanding the complexities of such a case on so many levels, but also in being cautious about what cases we take. I learned it can have personal and professional consequences.”
It was a task she took on reluctantly – partly because of advice she recalled getting from one of her family members, an aunt who also serves as a New Jersey superior court judge.
“Not only was it something professors in college advised against, but my aunt told me once about how she represented friends in a divorce case, and got sued in the end. The truth is, all of us do it, whether we get approached with legal questions by coworkers and friends, or something like what I was faced with, when my family asked me for help after Matthew was killed,” says Stralka. “His parents were immediately barraged with reporters shoving cameras and microphones in their faces, as well as attorneys hiring private investigators to search through their garbage cans for personal information.”
Once her cousin’s name was moved from the list of students unaccounted for to the list of those who had died, her perception of such random acts would be forever changed; she no longer was watching from a distance with the rest of the world, trying to sort through the details of an unthinkable tragedy.
“When I heard he was missing, I remember running through all the possible explanations in my head. At 20, I figured maybe he was just at Taco Bell, which he loved, or maybe, because he was with the ROTC, he was up early and off at a practice... You go through every possible explanation you can think of until you get the call,” Stralka says.
Her grandmother was the one who delivered the news. The horror and shock was immediate for Stralka. She instinctively turned on the television to see what was unfolding. “One of the first things I saw was a picture of Cho, holding the guns used to kill my cousin. For the first time it hit me, how insensitive the media reporting is when it comes to a tragedy like this,” Stralka says.
And her family was suddenly in the spotlight, being hounded for interviews with the media as well as fielding calls from local attorneys, anticipating that the family might pursue litigation.
“That was not a proud moment in my profession,” Stralka says. “I felt disgusted, because I saw the worst of my profession in that moment, lawyers trying to take advantage of my loved ones in pursuit of the almighty dollar.”
She decided to use her own legal knowledge and take the case as a way of protecting her family.
“To be honest, I felt at first like I was on autopilot, probably the way a first-responder feels in the line of duty. I was traumatized, but I knew my family needed me to dig in and get the details,” says Stralka. “I was a hybrid griever and attorney.”
From the countless hours of interviews and conversations with law enforcement officials and witnesses, Stralka and her family also received an unexpected gift: learning that Matthew had died a hero by sacrificing himself to try and stop Cho.
“Matthew wanted to study political science. He was in the Air Force ROTC because he wanted to fly,” says Stralka. “He was an artistic, gifted and talented individual, and he was just beginning to bloom in college, into this responsible, capable individual. That’s why the story of what he did, of how he saved all these lives, speaks to who he was and what he was becoming, and we will always be grateful to know that when the shooter came into his classroom, my cousin charged at him holding a heavy desk, trying to barricade the door, while the rest of the students did what the professor told them to do, which was to get under their desks. But the thought of Matthew, holding up that desk with his arms outstretched, knowing he was in the line of fire, and knowing that so many of his classmates credit him with saving their lives, is priceless to us.”
In less than 10 minutes, Cho fired 174 rounds with at least 17 ammunition magazines recovered by law enforcement. He took 32 lives, and left 17 injured.
“When police arrived on the scene, Matthew and Cho were found dead, just inches away from each other. A first responder told my family that as soon as he saw Matthew’s ROTC uniform, he knelt down beside him and said a prayer for him, and then, he closed his eyes.”
On June 17, 2008, an $11 million settlement was reached in a suit against the Commonwealth of Virginia by 24 of the 32 victims’ families. Stralka represented her family in the settlement negotiations. Of the other eight victims, two families chose not to file claims, while others pursued other legal channels. The settlement also allowed for lifelong health coverage for the people injured.
In the aftermath, Stralka recognizes that taking on this case and representing her family, although extremely difficult, was the right thing to do. Although she would not take compensation for her work, the rewards for her are now becoming evident.
“This has made me really value the importance of helping others when I can, and reinforces to me the value of ethics in our profession. I’ve belonged to two other bars, and by far, the New Hampshire bar is the most collegial and cohesive. It’s what has encouraged me to share my experience, as a mentor and as an adjunct professor,” says Stralka, who joined the New Hampshire Bar in the spring of 2016.
It has also altered the way she approaches everything, from her daily work on a college campus, and being a mom, to how she processes the nightly news.
“Every time there is some kind of mass shooting, I relive it – when Orlando happened, when Newtown happened – each time another shooting happens, I say to myself that I need to speak about this, I need to share my story,” Stralka says.
She came to New Hampshire knowing that it is one of the few states that has not had a mass shooting, and she would like to do her part to make sure it remains that way.
“I’m an advocate of the Second Amendment, but in light of New Hampshire’s gun laws, I feel there’s a lesson to be learned from what happened at Virginia Tech. I read a lot of law journals written subsequent to the tragedy, on how easy it is to get a gun and what Cho went through to get the weapons he had, which wasn’t much,” Stralka said.
“It’s a sensitive issue in New Hampshire, but my feeling is there has to be a balance between protecting the rights of citizens and protecting private information about people who are known to be violent and mentally ill,” she says.
Although the process has been a healing one, she will never get over the loss of her cousin.
“He would have flourished in life. He would’ve done many wonderful things. He died a hero, and I am blessed to be related to someone hailed as a national hero. But I would rather have him here, than for him to be someone who was forever silenced in a terrible act of violence that should never have happened.”