Eight years after a mentally ill man beat a fellow student to death in a dimly lit stairwell on the Knox College campus, an Illinois jury has found the college negligent and ordered it to pay $1.05 million to the family of the murdered student.
In March 1988, Clyde A. Best, then a student at Knox, a private liberal-arts institution in Galesburg, Ill., beat Andrea Racibozynski, a 19-year-old freshman, to death with a brick in a glass-enclosed stairwell. Best was sentenced to 60 years in prison in 1999 after pleading guilty but mentally ill.
Racibozynski's family sued Knox for wrongful death and "survival" -- the former seeks damages for survivors of a crime victim, the latter for damages for pain and suffering endured by a crime victim him or herself -- in county court near Chicago in 2001, where the family lived. But a change in venue to courts in Knox County, nearer to the college, delayed the trial until last week.
Knox officials argued throughout the trial that the college had played no role in the murder and should not be held responsible for it. "Nothing that Knox did or did not do caused Clyde Best to murder Andrea Racibozynski," Christopher Ryan, a lawyer who represented the college, said in his opening statement last week. "Clyde Best's attack on Andrea Racibozynski came without warning, without provocation, and he killed her after just meeting her a half hour before."
Lawyers for the family argued, however, that the college had contributed to Racibozynski's death because of its flawed security and safety measures. Most notably, 9 of the 20 light bulbs in the stairwell were burned out or another 6 had been turned off, possibly by Best.
The stairwell was enclosed in glass precisely to make it more secure, Ed Manzke, the lawyer for the family, said in an interview Tuesday. "It acts as a deterrent because it is lit up; and it provides 'natural surveilliance,' because anybody can see what's going on," he said. "But that only works if the lights work."
Monday, the jury deliberated for less than three hours before finding Knox negligent. The jury awarded a total of $1,050,000 -- $150,000 for the pain and suffering Racibozynski endured while she was being beaten and $150,000 for her emotional distress, and $750,000 for her family's suffering.
Karrie Heartlein, director of public relations at Knox, said college officials were deciding whether to appeal. "Andrea's family remains in our hearts and our prayers," she said, "but we really don't believe that anyone could have foreseen this sort of tragedy."
Manzke, the family's lawyer, said the Racibozynskis pursued the case because they "wanted to make sure that Knox understood what they did wrong, and so that other schools might take note of what happened."
He added: "When kids get killed on a campus, it's usually because something went wrong, there was some breakdown in the system. If even one school hears about this and decides to add some money to the security budget, to make sure everything is done corrrectly, then it's been worth it to the family."