The attorney for Aaron Rey Ybarra, accused of killing one student and wounding two others in a shooting at Seattle Pacific University earlier this month, may pursue an insanity defense.
During Ybarra’s arraignment Monday, defense attorney Ramona Brandesfiled a notice of intent to pursue a plea on the basis of mental instability.
The filing doesn’t necessarily mean she will pursue an insanity defense, but allows that to be an option as attorneys are required to file the document within 10 days of the arraignment, she said.
“It’s a defense we are definitely investigating, but we still need more information,” Brandes said after the arraignment. “We will be looking over medical records, talking to past doctors to review their diagnoses and will have him diagnosed ourselves by a number of experts before we decide if it is fully viable.”
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Ybarra, 26, of Mountlake Terrace, pleaded not guilty Monday to one count of premeditated first-degree murder, three counts of attempted first-degree murder and one count of second-degree assault. All of the charges carry firearms allegations that could increase the sentences.
Prosecutors amended the charges and added the third count of attempted murder against Ybarra based on new statements from SPU student Anna Sophia Cuturilo-Hackney, who said Ybarra pointed a shotgun at her during the June 5 shooting rampage.
Ybarra “admitted to pulling a gun on (Cuturilo-Hackney) and pulling the trigger,” Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Jessica Berliner said at the hearing. “Luckily, the gun malfunctioned.”
The additional charge was added after prosecutors obtained a detailed statement from Cuturilo-Hackney.
If convicted as charged, Ybarra could face 69 to 86 years in prison. However, prosecutors plan to seek an exceptional sentence that could result in a term of life in prison, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced earlier this month.
Under a “rarely used” provision of state sentencing law, prosecutors can seek an exceptional sentence “designed for this type of outrageous act of public violence,” Satterberg said. The law allows for a life sentence if the “offense involved a destructive and foreseeable impact on persons other than the victim.”
Satterberg, in a statement he read at a June 10 news conference, said the shootings reverberated far beyond the SPU community.
“Though it is impossible to measure, I believe that our entire community suffers a profound loss each time there is an incident of mass violence,” he said.
Ybarra is being held without bail in the King County Jail. His next court date is set for Sept. 10.
Ybarra is accused of walking into Otto Miller Hall on the SPU campus at about 3:30 p.m. June 5 and shooting three students with a shotgun before he was tackled by 22-year-old student Jon Meis while he paused to reload.
In addition to the shotgun, police say, Ybarra was armed with a hunting knife and carried more than 50 rounds of ammunition.
Killed was student Paul Lee, 19, of Portland, who died at Harborview Medical Center. Wounded were Sarah Williams, 19, of Phoenix; and Thomas Fowler Jr., 24, of Seattle.
Instances of Ybarra’s instability are well documented in court files, psychological reports and police records from as early as 2010.
Ybarra disclosed being hospitalized twice in 2010 and 2011 after he claimed he heard in his head the voice of Eric Harris, one of the shooters in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, “telling him to hurt people,” court records show.
Ybarra kept a journal during the two weeks before the SPU shootings, prosecutors allege. In it, he “expresses admiration for perpetrators of mass violence at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech,” Satterberg said. Police found the journal in a pickup he parked near Otto Miller Hall.
Brandes, the defense attorney, has not disputed accounts of the shooting, but maintains Ybarra suffers from mental illness and was unaware of his actions “until he heard a girl screaming.”
“He wasn’t on his meds, and he committed an action that is incomprehensible. Had he been on his meds, would this have happened? We’ll continue asking that for all time,” she said earlier this month.
Natalie Pimplett, a senior at SPU and friend of victim Paul Lee, was in the courtroom during Ybarra’s arraignment.
“(Lee) had a kind spirit,” Pimplett said in an emotional interview outside the courtroom. “He loved to dance, and he was always smiling, always singing. He had a great attitude, and we miss him a lot.”
Pimplett, 21, said that she came to the hearing in support of her friend’s memory.
“It was hard to watch,” she said. “But now I want to take comfort in the fact that justice will be served.”
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
Erin Heffernan: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-3249