Aaron Ybarra, 29, has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to charges of first-degree murder, attempted murder and assault.
During her opening statement to jurors Monday, Senior Deputy Prosecutor Jessica Berliner read aloud passages from a journal written by Aaron Ybarra, who is accused of going on a deadly shooting rampage at Seattle Pacific University in June 2014.
Right before he exited his truck with a shotgun, Ybarra wrote: “This is it! I can’t believe I’m finally doing this! So excited I’m jumpy,” Berliner read.
Peppered with references to other school shooters, the journal entry on June 5, 2014, concluded, “No matter how cute the girl, no matter how cool the guy, they’re going to die,” read Berliner.
While the state contends Ybarra knew his plan to commit a mass shooting was wrong, his defense attorney, Ramona Brandes, told jurors that his “brain is both damaged and diseased” to the point he is unable to tell right from wrong.
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“When Aaron Ybarra pulled the trigger on that terrible day, his mind was in a dark and dangerous place,” Brandes said during her opening remarks to the jury of nine men and seven women.
Ybarra, 29, is charged with premeditated first-degree murder in the death of 19-year-old student Paul Lee, three counts of attempted first-degree murder and one count of second-degree assault. Each charge also carries a firearms enhancement as well as an alleged aggravator that the shooting “involved a destructive and foreseeable impact on persons other than the victim” — namely, the entire Seattle Pacific University community.
Ybarra has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Berliner described to jurors how Ybarra posed as a potential transfer student to scout the campus, twice visited a Lynnwood gun store to load up on birdshot and detailed in his journal his hatred for the world.
She said the state doesn’t contest that Ybarra “is mentally ill to some degree,” but noted he intentionally stopped therapy and medication to fuel his hate.
“Mentally ill is not legally insane,” she said. “We ask you to pay attention to the facts and the words the defendant used back then.”
It wasn’t until long after his arrest that Ybarra would claim he was suffering under a delusion that he was being commanded by God, she said. But in the shooting’s immediate aftermath, Ybarra told police detectives he was angry at what he perceived as disrespect from other people and felt “powerful” after committing the shootings, Berliner said.
“That’s why he wanted people to die — he wanted people to take him seriously,” she said.
Berliner said “the only reason more people weren’t killed that day” was because of the heroic actions of student-safety monitor Jon Meis, who tackled Ybarra, doused him with pepper spray and disarmed him. He then held Ybarra for police with the help of another student.
Brandes, in her opening, said Ybarra suffered from either genetic or in utero brain damage and was later diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder — a mix of schizophrenia and depression — long before the shootings.
In 2012, “Aaron was speaking more specifically about a plan to kill and a plan to die,” she said. He did well once in therapy and on medication but was forced to stop both in 2013 when he turned 26 and was no longer covered by his parents’ medical insurance, said Brandes.
“So this case is about brain disease …(and) how it can strip away the very ability to distinguish between right and wrong,” Brandes said.
By the time of the shooting, “Aaron’s mind was broken from reality,” she said. “This was God’s plan and that’s insane.”
Anna Sophia Cuturilo-Hackney was among the first witnesses to take the stand during what is expected to be a five-week trial.
She testified she had bumped into a classmate outside Otto Miller Hall and stood talking with him on a sidewalk when she noticed Ybarra pointing a gun at them. He ordered them to go inside the science and engineering building.
“It didn’t really register … I thought it was a joke,” Cuturilo-Hackney said. “I kind of laughed,” then turned back to her conversation.
She then heard “a loud bang” and saw Lee, who had been walking nearby, fall to the ground.
“He was very close, close enough I felt a rush of air as he was falling,” Cuturilo-Hackney said of Lee.
Asked how she knew Lee had been fatally shot, she replied: “Because half of his head wasn’t there.”
She turned and looked down the barrel of Ybarra’s shotgun, then heard “a click,” Cuturilo-Hackney said. As Ybarra bent to manipulate the weapon, she and her classmate ran away, first taking refuge in the machine shop at the back of Otto Miller Hall. There, she and other students heard a second, muffled shot from inside the building and ran upstairs, where they barricaded themselves in a computer lounge, she said.
Meis and Sarah Williams, who was critically injured in the shooting, are expected to take the stand this week. Jurors will also be shown video-surveillance footage of the struggle between Meis and Ybarra and are expected to visit the Seattle Pacific University campus to see the area where the shootings occurred.