STEM school shooting verdicts spark strong emotions in court

Survivors, families react to guilty verdicts that will send shooter to prison for life

After two years of anger and sorrow, John and Maria Castillo cried tears of joy June 15 as a jury found the person who fatally shot their son guilty of first-degree murder.
Devon Erickson, 20, now faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for his role in the May 7, 2019 STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting. The attack left eight students injured and one, John and Maria’s son Kendrick, dead. 
Erickson was also found guilty of an additional 44 charges, including 31 counts of attempted first-degree murder.
In the moments before the verdicts were announced, survivors and their families filled the courtroom, quietly whispering to one another as they awaited the news. After only a five-hour jury deliberation, many had to hurry to the courthouse. The Castillos, along with Erickson’s family, were some of the last to enter the room.
As the judge read the guilty verdicts for the two first-degree murder charges, emotions rippled across the courtroom. Victims and their families nodded with approval, patted one another on the back and grabbed nearby tissues.
Each count of attempted first-degree murder was associated with a person in classroom 107 that day, many of whom testified in the trial and were in the courtroom June 15. 
As Judge Theresa Slade read out each person’s name and associated charge, affirming that the jury found Erickson guilty of attempting to murder them, those who were present nodded their heads or closed their eyes as those around them reached out with supportive pats.
Mitchell Kraus, who gave an emotional testimony about being shot in the stomach during the attack, sat in the courtroom with his family and other survivors. As the guilty verdict associated with him was read aloud, his parents reached out and rubbed his back. 
Sitting behind Kraus was Brendan Bialy, another survivor and one of the students who — along with Kendrick — stormed Erickson to disarm him that day. Bialy leaned forward and whispered something to Kraus as he grabbed his friend’s shoulder. 
When the guilty verdict for Erickson’s attempted murder of Bialy was announced, his mother sat next to him, squeezing his hand.
“We’re all part of a family we never wanted to be a part of,” Kraus said to reporters following the hearing.
A few of the STEM survivors and family members peered over at the right side of the courtroom — where Erickson’s family sat — as the verdicts were announced. In that corner, a young woman shook with sobs. Erickson’s father appeared to be taking notes.
Erickson, who wore a gray suit and tie, stared ahead with his hands folded in front of him as the guilty verdicts were listed. He did not have a visible reaction to the verdicts.
Neither the family nor Erickson’s defense team were available in a media area following the verdict announcement.
“We've had tears of sorrow, we've had anger for a couple years. Today we had tears of joy,” said John Castillo in a press conference following the hearing. “As we heard those read off for every person, it was a release.”
Lead prosecutor George Brauchler, who also spoke to reporters, emphasized that it’s impossible to truly rectify what happened to the Castillos.
“This is a great outcome … but I’m going to leave here and go home and have dinner with my kids and hug them and think about the fact that John and Maria are going to get in their car and drive to a gravesite and share information with a headstone,” Brauchler said. “That is sobering.”
During the 12-day trial, the jury heard from 63 witnesses, only two of whom were called by the defense. The prosecution called on STEM students and teachers, doctors, forensic experts, first responders and others to share their insights into what happened that day.
The two expert witnesses called by the defense spoke about the possibility that Erickson had accidentally fired his gun due to an involuntary muscle contraction and that he was impaired because of long-term cocaine use and a lack of sleep.
The prosecution repeatedly questioned these ideas by asking witnesses if Erickson was coherent earlier in that day and in the moments before the shooting. They also drew attention to the fact that there are no academic studies available that cite involuntary muscle contractions for multiple gunshots.
Alec McKinney, who pleaded guilty in 2020 to charges similar to Erickson’s for his role in the attack, also testified for the prosecution. McKinney told the jury that the two of them had an elaborate plan for the attack that included killing everyone in Room 107 and then Erickson killing McKinney so he could “come off as the hero.”
Physical evidence discussed during the trial showed that Erickson’s gun had been fired four times, hitting three students. McKinney shot nine bullets, injuring four students.
The defense claimed in closing arguments that Erickson had some responsibility for what happened but that it wasn’t his intent to kill anyone. Defense attorney David Kaplan reminded the jury before their deliberations that they could find Erickson guilty of lesser charges, including second-degree murder, reckless manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide.
“Devon didn’t go in there with some plan,” Kaplan said.
Erickson’s sentencing, which will provide an opportunity for victims to speak to the court about the impacts of Erickson’s crimes, will be Sept. 17.
STEM school, Highlands Ranch Colorado, school shooting, Devon Erickson


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