FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — An Arizona man who fatally shot a fellow student on a normally placid college campus after he was punched in the face and heckled has been sentenced to six years in prison.
Steven Jones had faced between five and 10 years behind bars in the October 2015 death of Colin Brough, 20. Rather than risk a potential second-degree murder conviction, Jones pleaded guilty last month to manslaughter in Brough’s death and to three counts of aggravated assault for injuring three others.
The sentence brought little relief to the shooting victims and their families.
“Through this four-and-a-half years of what’s been going on, everything has been one-sided to the defendant, even after he admitted doing everything,” Brough’s father, Doug, said afterward. “He’s guilty. He pleaded guilty. But he still gets the benefit of the doubt.”
Prison won’t be fun for Jones, he said, but “it doesn’t bring my son back.”
Coconino County Superior Court Judge Dan Slayton took into account Jones’ lack of criminal history, his age, cooperation with police, use of a deadly weapon and other factors in handing down the sentence.
But the judge who has overseen much of the case said he won’t kid himself into thinking a punishment would “bring peace and closure.”
Jones, 23, displayed little emotion during the hearing, except when his attorney played a video showing him crying uncontrollably in a police interview the night of the shooting and shortly before hearing his punishment.
Standing before the judge, Jones said it would be disrespectful to the victims and their family to talk about how he personally had been affected by the shooting.
“I should probably just say, if it were possible, I would in a heartbeat trade places with Colin Brough,” he said tearfully. “If he could be home with his family and I could be dead, I would do that. But that’s not possible.”
Jones received six years in prison on the manslaughter charge and five years on each of the three counts of aggravated assault — all of which will run concurrently. He also gets credit for seven months already served.
In letters and in court Tuesday, Brough’s family and friends pleaded for the lengthiest sentence possible. His mother, Claudia, described how she sank into a deep depression after her son died, withdrew from everyone and tried to end her own life.
“Time has healed nothing,” she said, gripping the papers that bared her words and seesawing on the heels of her shoes. “I have learned to live with my pain, and I still have days when the pain is stronger than I am.”
In court, Jones fixed his eyes on a screen that, for 17 minutes, showed pictures of Brough as a baby, at parties, smiling and laughing, and in college. Groups of people in the slideshow set to the theme song of the 1991 film “Dying Young” wore orange shirts with Colin’s image on the back and #LiveforColin on the front — a campaign his parents started to advocate for gun-free campuses.
Some of Brough’s friends and family wore orange armbands in court Tuesday with the hashtag.
“Wow, what a great life Colin had, cut way too short, for no reason,” Colin’s father, Doug, said, shaking his head and throwing up his hands.
The Broughs left the courtroom as the defense began its presentation. Doug Brough later said he didn’t want his family subjected to lies.
Jones’ attorney, Christopher Dupont, tried to draw parallels between Brough and Jones, saying Jones also was well-loved by extended family, friends and co-workers, and grew up with Christian values. He said Jones arrived at Northern Arizona University as a sheltered and naïve freshman who had no reason to bring a gun.
Jones’ actions the night of the shooting were not justified, he said, then described what he saw as a convergence of fear and anger.
Fear on the side of Jones that he could be severely injured or killed after he was punched in the face and heckled, wrongfully believing he was being chased. Anger on the side of fraternity brothers who lived at an apartment complex and who Dupont painted as being unkind to outsiders.
“With all the wildness going on, police incidents, it was only a matter of time before something went horribly wrong there,” he said.
The initial dispute happened near an apartment complex across the street from the university and spilled over to the campus.
It’s not clear who punched Jones. But he went to his car and retrieved a gun from his glove box and shined a tactical light affixed to it on the darkened campus.
Jones said he announced he had a gun and told people to stand down. He long maintained he shot the four people in self defense. The tone changed Tuesday as Dupont described Jones’ actions as reckless and unjustified.
Prosecutors have said Jones was an assassin whose pride was hurt and who could have left what largely was a verbal argument and drove off, without resorting to gunfire.
The gunshots rang out in the predawn hours of Oct. 9, 2015, initially stoked fears of a mass shooting at the university, about 145 miles (233 kilometers) north of Phoenix. It was the first deadly shooting at the school since it was founded more than a century ago, university officials said.
Brough died after being shot in the chest and shoulder. Piring was shot in the arm and hip as he jumped over a bush to reach Brough, his onetime roommate.
Jones, who was trained to use firearms growing up, fired again and without aiming after students dog-piled on him to subdue him and he was trying to disperse the crowd. Prato was struck in the neck, and Zientek was hit twice in the back.
Jones’ guilty plea came years after jurors deadlocked on charges in Jones’ first trial. His defense team got the first-degree murder charge dropped before a second trial was called off after Jones pleaded guilty in the case.