Narratives differ as STEM shooting trial opens

Devon Erickson is accused of killing classmate in 2019 school shooting

John Ingold, The Colorado Sun, and Elliott Wenzler, Colorado Community Media
Posted 5/27/21

The trial of one of two former STEM School Highlands Ranch students accused of attacking the school in 2019, killing one classmate and injuring six others, opened May 27 with the sound of a teacher's …

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Narratives differ as STEM shooting trial opens

Devon Erickson is accused of killing classmate in 2019 school shooting

The trial of one of two former STEM School Highlands Ranch students accused of attacking the school in 2019, killing one classmate and injuring six others, opened May 27 with the sound of a teacher’s frantic breathing.
“There’s a shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch!” the teacher, Erin Christian, cried in a call to 911 on the day of the attack, May 7, 2019, as she huddled next door to the classroom where the shots were fired. 
Her voice echoed across a Douglas County courtroom on the first day of the trial, as prosecutor George Brauchler played the audio recording for jurors during his opening statement.
“Erin,” the 911 operator calmly told the teacher, “I want you to do exactly what you’ve been trained to do.”
Questions about what led to that moment and who is to blame for the shooting in Room 107 will be debated over the next month in District Court Judge Theresa Slade’s courtroom. But already on opening day, as prosecutors and defense attorneys gave their opening statements, the fault lines became clear.
To prosecutors, the now-20-year-old man on trial, Devon Erickson, is a calculating, lying killer who conspired with another student to commit the attack and then concoct a story in which he portrayed himself as a victim, too.
“This plan is as diabolical as it is deadly,” Brauchler said. 
Photos from the day of the shooting show Erickson with long hair, which was dyed half pink and half black. However, during the opening statements in his trial, he appeared starkly different, with short-cropped brown hair and wearing a navy blue suit and a tie.
Throughout the court session, the defendant peered out from under a face mask — a mandatory measure for all in attendance — and watched as the arguments were delivered, directing his attention to a nearby screen when video evidence and a slideshow were projected for the jury.
During his remarks, Brauchler used interview clips, photos and quotes to depict an image of a disturbed young man who aided in a deadly attack. Only the intervention of several students, including Kendrick Castillo, who was killed trying to stop the shooting, prevented it from being worse.
Kendrick’s parents, John and Maria Castillo, sat in the courtroom during the opening statements, visibly shaken by the narratives described by both the prosecution and defense. Also in the courtroom were other victims of the attack, including students and staff who were in Room 107 that day.
In one corner of the courtroom, Erickson’s family also listened to the start of the trial, several of whom jotted notes throughout the proceedings. Throughout the afternoon’s court session, soft sobs could be heard from both sides of the room. 
To defense attorneys, Erickson is a “normal, happy, funny kid” who lost his way amid a vortex of drug abuse, sleep deprivation and family crisis. Attorney Julia Stancil said Erickson, in a fog of intoxication, intended to stop the attack, not participate in it. She described the other student involved, Alec McKinney, as a “puppet master” who manipulated Erickson into a “psychotic cult play.”
“Devon Erickson did not intend to kill,” she told jurors. “Devon Erickson is not a demon. He’s not a monster.”
For the duration of Stancil’s speech, including a description of the “inner conflict” that Erickson dealt with the day of the shooting, Maria Castillo sat with her head down, face in her hands.

Intent is questioned

McKinney and Erickson walked into the STEM School on the day of the attack carrying two bags holding a total of four guns. Castillo was shot as he charged Erickson — prosecutors contend Erickson fired intentionally, the defense argues it was accidental.
Brauchler identified by name six more students who were shot during the attack, four by McKinney and two allegedly by Erickson. Two other students also suffered bullet wounds after being shot mistakenly by a security guard.
McKinney, who was 16 at the time of the attack, pleaded guilty last year to 17 counts in connection with the case, including first-degree murder. He may be a key witness for prosecutors during Erickson’s trial. McKinney was sentenced to life in prison with a chance of parole after 40 years.
Erickson faces 46 charges, including first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder. If convicted of first-degree murder, he would be automatically sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A trial preview

Brauchler’s opening statements gave jurors a preview of a case that will be loaded with wrenching testimony by students, teachers, school counselors and nurses. He told jurors they will hear from students who wrestled McKinney and Erickson to the ground and pried a gun out of Erickson’s hand. He said they will also hear from a school nurse who saw Erickson just prior to the attack, one of numerous opportunities Brauchler said Erickson had to warn someone of what was to come but didn’t.
In his opening statement, Brauchler played two Snapchat videos taken by McKinney on the day of the shooting — videos that Brauchler said were staged to make it look as if Erickson was being forced to participate, part of what Brauchler called a premeditated “victim-hero story” that Erickson hoped to tell to spare himself from accountability for the shooting.
To conclude his opening statement, Brauchler emphasized a surveillance video taken from the school’s hallways that day. It showed McKinney and Erickson parting ways with a fist bump as they moved into position for the attack. Another video showed students running in terror after shots were fired.
“When he’s finally subdued and only when he’s finally subdued — only then does he say, ‘Alec made me do it,’” Brauchler said.
Brauchler said he will implore jurors to “hold (Erickson) accountable for what he did in helping to try to murder a classroom full of students.”
But in the defense’s hands, that same evidence held different meaning. 
The Snapchat videos, Stancil argued, show how McKinney actually was bullying Erickson, whom she said was clearly impaired after having spent the previous night and morning doing drugs — drugs she said McKinney introduced Erickson to.
She said the defense intends to call expert witnesses to testify to the effects of heavy drug use and sleep deprivation. Another witness will talk about the science of human reflexes and accidental trigger pulls. Another will testify to the impaired decision-making abilities of teens, part of a defense argument that Erickson tried to stop the attack but couldn’t because he was too impaired.
“He wanted to stop it,” Stancil said. “Not that his actions make sense. Because there’s no way to make sense out of this. But that’s what he was thinking at the time.”
And Stancil indicated that the defense will heavily attack the credibility of McKinney, saying he made a deal with prosecutors to pin the blame on Erickson.
“The government has made a deal with the sick, psychotic, schizophrenic kid,” Stancil said, referring to McKinney.
Witness testimony in the trial was expected to resume the morning of May 28, before the Memorial Day break. Access to the courtroom is limited due to the coronavirus pandemic, but the public can watch the proceedings via a live stream link available on the court’s website. The link is available by visiting then viewing the “courts” menu and selecting “trial courts by county” then navigating to “Douglas County.” At the top of that page, there is a link to view the courtroom. 
The trial is expected to run into late June.
Leaving the courthouse at the end of the day, John Castillo commented that it was a difficult day.
“It reopened wounds that were, I feel, starting to heal,” he said. “It’s tough to hear twisted, augmented perception. But we have to be strong because we know there’s going to be more challenging days ahead of us.”
Devon Erickson, Alec McKinney, Kendrick Castillo, Highlands Ranch Colorado, Elliott Wenzler, STEM shooting, John Ingold


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