STEM School shooting trial jury to begin deliberations Tuesday

A Douglas County jury will begin deliberating Tuesday in the murder trial of alleged STEM School Highlands Ranch shooter Devon Erickson.

Prosecutors and defense lawyers gave closing arguments in the three-week trial late Monday after District Court Judge Theresa Slade read them jury instructions that took nearly two hours to complete.

Prosecutors describe Erickson as a calculating killer intent on slaughtering a room full of classmates. The defense team says he was a troubled and misled teen, pumped up on drugs and easily manipulated by co-defendant Alec McKinney, a homicidal and suicidal juvenile now serving a life term for the same crime.

“He wasn’t as dark, as evil, as controlling as Alec McKinney,” lead defense attorney David Kaplan said during his closing argument. “It was true that Alec McKinney had a single-minded focus on what he was going to do that day.”

The 20-year-old Erickson faces life in prison without the possibility of parole if he’s convicted on first-degree felony murder charges in the May 7, 2019, shooting that left classmate Kendrick Castillo dead and eight others injured – six of them in the classroom.

Jurors can instead convict him of lesser offenses such as second-degree murder, manslaughter, reckless manslaughter, or criminally negligent homicide.

“The defendant, along with a suicidal friend, made war in a class full of fellow students and a couple of teachers,” Chief Deputy District Attorney George Brauchler said in his closing argument. “In the process, they tried to kill all; they shot six and murdered one hero. Right now is your first chance to bring justice to what happened two years ago.”

Brauchler was district attorney for the 18th Judicial District when the incident occurred and his term ended in January 2021. He stayed on to lead the prosecution against Erickson.

Erickson faces 48 charges in connection with the incident, including multiple attempted murder charges for firing into the British literature classroom that day. Each charge carries the name of a student or teacher who was there.

The most serious charges are tied to Castillo’s death. He was felled by a single gunshot Erickson fired just as Castillo and two other students rushed Erickson and tackled him. Erickson fired the gun three more times before the students pried the gun from his hand.

Kaplan characterized the fatal shot as accidental, and the only defense witnesses presented opined the same. One said Erickson might have been startled by the classmates who charged him and fired unintentionally. Another said Erickson was too wired with drugs and confused by depression and malnutrition to be cognizant of what he was doing.

Prosecutors have repeatedly pointed to numerous opportunities Erickson had to tell anyone about the planned shooting. Defense lawyers pointed to a pair of videos that purportedly showed McKinney forcing Erickson to break into his parents’ gun safe and to snort cocaine.

“If you find those pieces of evidence are fake, are illegitimate, then he’s guilty of everything,” Brauchler said.

McKinney testified that the plan was for him to take all the blame and the pair set the videos up to appear that way. Three other video efforts were deleted from a cell phone because the two were laughing.

The two purposely left no communications trail in which they discussed the plan, McKinney testified, to ensure the blame was deflected from Erickson.

Erickson, who once told McKinney about wanting to kill someone and get away with it, was to play victim-hero and kill McKinney after the classroom of students was wiped out, testimony showed.

“They succeeded that day in creating heroes,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Chris Wilcox said. “Just not the ones they wanted to.”

Seconds before the incident unfolded, Erickson texted his alleged accomplice: “Go now.”

“Go now is the language of coordination, the language of execution,” Brauchler said. “We were supposed to be here talking about 25 deaths, but for the heroes who stepped up.”

To show Erickson was further complicit, Brauchler challenged why the first-floor classroom was chosen: “If McKinney is running the ship, why choose room 107? He doesn’t know anyone in that class; it’s not even his class.”

McKinney was a 16-year-old sophomore at the time and, because he was a juvenile, is eligible for parole after 40 years in prison.

Kaplan said when all the evidence is viewed together, the day’s events are not as logical an outcome as prosecutors would have jurors believe.

“There was no agreement, there was no plan, there wasn’t any great design,” he said. “It wasn’t that kind of plan. Why does that make sense? The day doesn’t make any kind of sense at all.”

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