A federal jury has found that the University of Virginia's student-run disciplinary committee did not violate the constitutional rights of a student who was suspended for his involvement in a 1997 assault.
Richard Smith had filed suit against the seven students on the school's Judiciary Committee and several U-Va. officials, arguing that his rights were violated because the student panel held its hearing in his absence.
U-Va. officials hailed the jury's verdict, handed up Friday in U.S. District Court in Charlottesville, as an endorsement of the college's student-run disciplinary system. That system has been the target of several lawsuits, most of them involving a second student committee that rules on alleged violations of the school's honor code.
"A substantial portion of their case was that the university Judiciary Committee is not properly trained or properly supervised," said Richard Kast, the university's associate general counsel, referring to Smith's lawsuit. He said the students undergo several days of "extensive training."
Smith and three other students were accused of assaulting freshman Alexander "Sandy" Kory, of Falls Church, on Nov. 21, 1997. Kory suffered a broken jaw and other injuries. Smith pleaded guilty to criminal charges of misdemeanor assault and battery and was sentenced to two months in jail.
The U-Va. student panel took up Smith's case in 1998 and recommended expulsion, according to attorneys for Kory and Smith. Smith said he did not attend the hearing because William W. Harmon, the university's vice president of student affairs, told him it had been postponed. But during the week-long trial of Smith's lawsuit, Harmon testified that he told Smith he was recommending a postponement but did not have the authority to order one.
An appeals board of students, faculty and administrators eventually ordered another disciplinary hearing. But three student prosecutors and the student heading the disciplinary panel resigned the day before the second hearing was to be held. Kory said the student prosecutors told him they feared they might be sued.
The case sparked a campus protest organized by students who contended that Smith was being given special treatment because his father, Frederick W. Smith, is chairman of the parent company of Federal Express.
Last year, John T. Casteen III, the university president, ordered that Smith be suspended for two years. Smith is now a senior at George Washington University.
Smith filed suit against Casteen, the U-Va. Board of Visitors, the Judiciary Committee and Harmon.
"It's a disappointing result," said Smith's attorney, Dane Butswinkas. "Richard respects the verdict and appreciates the fact that the jurors sat through the trial. All Richard has asked throughout this process is to present his side of the story and have someone listen."
The judge dismissed Smith's claims against the Board of Visitors and Casteen before they reached the jury, Butswinkas said. Jurors rejected the remaining claims.
Smith's lawsuit sought $1.25 million in damages, but Butswinkas said during the trial that Smith was seeking only $100 from each member of the student panel.
Two other students who were involved in the assault on Kory and eventually suspended from U-Va.--Harrison K. Tigrett and Bradley C. Kintz--have filed similar lawsuits that are pending, Kast said.