The King County jury determined Aaron Ybarra was not legally insane at the time of the June 2014 shooting, finding he knew what he was doing when he killed one student and wounded two others.
Jurors who returned guilty verdicts against Seattle Pacific University gunman Aaron Ybarra said he is obviously mentally ill by societal definitions, but they concluded he is not legally insane and knew killing people was wrong.
“Could he really form the construct of, ‘this is right or wrong?’ ” one female juror asked after the verdicts were read Wednesday in King County Superior Court, describing the crux of the discussion in the jury room. “His journal and confession made it clear he understood what he was doing at the time.”
After a monthlong trial and a day and a half of deliberations, the jury of eight men and four women found Ybarra guilty of premeditated first-degree murder for the death of freshman Paul Lee, 19, of Portland, three counts of attempted first-degree murder and one count of second-degree assault. Each count also carries a firearms enhancement as well as an “aggravator” because the shooting “involved a destructive and foreseeable impact on persons other than the victim” — namely, the entire Seattle Pacific University community.
The Mountlake Terrace man had pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
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Ybarra, 29, showed no outward emotion as the verdicts were read.
He faces a sentence of 88 to 111 years in prison when he is sentenced Jan. 27. Prosecutors haven’t decided if they’ll seek an exceptional sentence above the standard range, based on the aggravating circumstances.
Though Ybarra’s guilt wasn’t contested during the trial, the jury had to weigh whether they thought Ybarra knew at the time of the shooting that his actions were legally and morally wrong, or if he was legally insane.
Ybarra, who took the stand over two days during the trial, testified that he was following a plan created by God, Satan and Lucifer, but on cross-examination admitted he was angry that Lee and three other students didn’t take him seriously or respect the danger he and his 12-gauge shotgun represented.
He also claimed he never intended to kill anyone, contradicting both his journal entries and statements made to police immediately following his arrest. He also discussed his obsession with school shootings and admiration for Eric Harris, one of two student gunmen responsible for the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999.
The defense testimony also focused on Ybarra’s developmental delays through childhood, his problems with substance abuse and his treatment for mental illness — which included a failed attempt to have Ybarra involuntarily committed.
Prosecutors acknowledged during the trial that Ybarra is mentally ill, but insisted he was driven by hatred and anger, and understood that what he was doing was wrong. Senior Deputy Prosecutor Kristin Richardson said Ybarra never mentioned God, Satan or Lucifer directing him to kill until months after the shooting, after he’d heard other inmates talk of “God’s plan” through jail ministries.
Instead, Richardson said, Ybarra opened fire at the small, private university “because he was angry at the world.”
After the verdict, jurors acknowledged that they believed Ybarra was mentally ill by the societal definition but that he didn’t meet the legal definition for insanity. They also said they placed a lot of weight on his journal entries and confession to police since they both showed his state of mind at the time of the crimes.
Nonetheless, jurors said the decision was not an easy one.
“There were tears shed in the jury room. It was emotional,” said a female juror.
Added another male juror: “It’s not easy to commit a man to prison for his entire life, especially when he’s mentally ill.”
Jurors were also sympathetic to Ybarra and his long struggle with mental illness and lamented the failed attempts to get him help.
“That whole progression, it was like an airline accident. It’s never just one thing, it’s six or seven things that make a disaster,” one female juror said.
According to testimony during the trial, Ybarra had scouted out the campus before the June 5, 2014, shooting, carried out on the second-to-last day of classes. He killed Lee on a sidewalk outside Otto Miller Hall and wounded a second man, Thomas Fowler, who was struck by pellets that passed through Lee.
He then tried to shoot a female student, but his shotgun misfired and she ran away, according to testimony.
Ybarra then walked into Otto Miller Hall, where he shot and critically wounded student Sarah Williams as she walked down a flight of stairs. Ybarra pointed the shotgun at a male student, but the gun misfired again and Ybarra was tackled by student-safety monitor Jon Meis.
The university released a statement after the verdict: Ybarra’s conviction “does not mark the end of the impact this act of violence has had on our campus,” the statement says in part, noting that Lee would have been a senior this year. “We continue to keep the victims, families, and all those affected by this tragedy in our prayers.”
After the verdict, defense attorney Ramona Brandes said Ybarra is “a very sweet person” who feels tremendous remorse and understands the gravity of his crimes.
“This is something he’s going to have to live with for his entire life … It’s clear he’s been suffering with his mental illness for a long time,” said Brandes. She said Ybarra plans to appeal.
Richardson, who prosecuted Ybarra alongside Senior Deputy Prosecutor Jessica Berliner, said it’s rare to hear directly from a school shooter because most are killed by police or commit suicide, as Ybarra had planned.
“Every school shooter we know of has the same thing and that’s hatred of the world,” Richardson said. “Most don’t live to tell the tale.”