Breathless, Syketha Sprague tried to describe for a Douglas County judge the lifelong impact of a school shooting.
Her voice started out as a strained whisper. Sprague uttered her words between gasps for air. Tears choked the visibly shaken woman. Then she made an admission to the packed galley.
For more than two years, Sprague has struggled to look John and Maria Castillo in the eyes, she said.
Sprague's only son survived the May 7, 2019, shooting at STEM School Highlands Ranch, which left senior Kendrick Castillo dead and eight other students injured. Every birthday, every holiday since, reminded her the Castillos lost their only son that day while she still held hers.
As Sprague spoke, John put his arm around Maria, who wept into her mask. Just like every past hearing, the couple sat in the front row of the Castle Rock courtroom.
Following a five-hour hearing on Sept. 17, District Judge Theresa Slade sentenced Devon Erickson, the older of two gunmen convicted in the shooting, to life in prison without a possibility of parole plus -- according to procecutors' calculation -- 1,282.5 additional years.
At the hearing, numerous victims said that they received a life sentence the day of the attack. Years of physical trauma, post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, and for scores of people, survivor guilt.
Sprague castigated the adult STEM School gunman for shattering lives. She grew up in an area plagued by violence, and she sent her son to STEM School because she “wanted a different life for my child.”
“I pray that you acknowledge what you have done,” she said. “I pray God has mercy on your soul.”
The sentencing hearing served as a milestone in a case that took nearly 2 1/2 years to reach that point — convicting and sentencing both gunmen.
In a news conference following the hearing, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock and 18th Judicial District Attorney John Kellner commended people impacted by the attack for standing up in court and speaking about their experiences.
“Here they are today still carrying that day with them, but being strong enough to say 'We want to tell you how we feel, we want to have justice,'” Spurlock said.
The sentence itself was noteworthy, prosecutors and law enforcement said,and came down in stark contrast to Erickson's co-defendant, Alec McKinney.
The younger convicted shooter was 16 at the time of the attack — his codefendant, Erickson, was 18 — and was sentenced in July 2020 by District Judge Jeffrey K. Holmes to life in prison plus 38 years, with the possibility of parole after 40 years. Former 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, who led the prosecution of Erickson, has lambasted a juvenile offender program for which McKinney could qualify, possibly securing his release in 25 years.
Erickson's sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, plus 1,282.5 years, was the maximum sentence possible for each charge connected to a victim, Brauchler said.
Based on the charges in Erickson's conviction, state statute required he receive life in prison without the possibility of parole, but Slade had some discretion over how many years shetacked on.
Prosecutors said in court they believed the range to be an additional 400 years on the low end and 1,276 on the higher end, although the sentence ultimately exceeded their estimate.
People who gave impact statements pleaded for the maximum sentence allowed by law.
Erickson's defense attorney, David Kaplan, spoke at length to the judge and courtroom, telling Slade that the individual he and his colleague know is capable of rehabilitation and got swept up in the tragedy amid personal crisis. The number of years she added would not make a real difference in achieving accountability, he said, and risked glorifying the crime.
The shooter's parents, grandfather and girlfriend told the room he showed remorse in private moments, despite a stoic persona in court.
As Erickson's loved ones spoke about his life before the shooting — trips with his father, bonding with his grandfather, his mother's health struggles — the convicted shooter at last broke down, quietly sobbing as he hunched over in his seat.
Shooting survivors in the galley reacted with a mix of shock, dismay, or disbelief to comments made in defense of Erickson's character.
Parents buried their faces in their hands or motioned for defense attorneys to hurry up. Former STEM students raised their eyebrows or quietly shook their heads.
Judge Slade didn't buy it either. Erickson's reactions appeared “manipulative at best,” she said. He failed to offer a reason behind the attack, something she heard victims cry for in victim impact statements, she said.
Slade also told the defendant he had not taken accountability. A nearly 600-page presentence investigation included a one-page statement purportedly written by him, but it included nothing substantive, she said.
“It was a shell,” she said.
She noted that he listened unflinchingly to survivor testimony until his family spoke about what he is losing, such as freedom to pursue his interests or family time.
“Today is the first time I have seen you show any type of emotion,” she said.
Slade said the sentence she handed down was aimed at punishment and deterrence, “to make sure that this never happens again.”
John Castillo, Kendrick's father, called the defendant's emotional displays narcissistic. Apologies from the gunman's parents felt canned, he said. He walked out of court as they testified.
Spurlock, the county sheriff, said people who gave victim impact statements calling the defendant unremorseful and a coward got the message across to Slade.
“That we do want to deter, we want to let everyone know that this is not acceptable at any level, and that the State of Colorado is going to punish people that put harm on our children and our schools,” he said.
DA Kellner vowed to always uphold Kendrick's memory.
“Today's sentence from the judge honored that memory and the sacrifice of Kendrick Castillo, and today's sentence from the judge recognized the profound horror, the terror that was inflicted by this defendant on our community,” he said.
Brauchler estimated that COVID-19 delayed the trial and sentencing hearing for Erickson's case by 15 months at least. Brauchler oversaw procedings before he left office in January of this year, and stayed on as a special deputy district attorney at Kellner's invitation.
The pandemic caused a painful drawing-out of the older suspect's case after multiple rescheduled trials, Brauchler said. He called that another testament to the community's resiliency.
“We did this during COVID. We did this with social distancing and masks,” he said. “We got this thing done.”
Brauchler thanked Kellner for allowing him to stay on. Brauchler's tenure as DA was bookended by the Aurora theater killings and the STEM School shooting. Finishing the STEM School case was personal after leaving one of the most challenging jobs he's had, Brauchler said.
“This is it,” Brauchler said. “This will be my last official act as a prosecutor for the 18th Judicial District.”
As is always the case, John Castillo said, the possibility of appeals loom. Defense attorney Julia Stancil said she did not have comment when reached by email.
He watched as the gunman's lawyers and family took notes during the sentencing hearing, he said, wondering if that was a precursor to more legal battles. Whatever comes, he and Maria will attend any future hearings as they did throughout the court cases, he said.
“As long as I'm breathing air and I'm upright,” he said.
This story was updated to reflect defense attorneys declined comment. Reporter Elliott Wenzler contributed to this story.
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