Adult STEM suspect pleads not guilty

Defense could change plea as Devon Erickson undergoes mental evaluation

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The older suspect in the STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting pleaded not guilty to all charges against him at an arraignment hearing on Jan. 2 that included a lengthy back-and-forth between his defense attorneys and the judge about when and how they would enter a plea.

Devon Erickson, 19, is accused of helping his co-defendant, Alec McKinney, 16, carry out a May 7 shooting at the school. The shooting left senior Kendrick Castillo dead. Eight more students were injured in the shooting.

Erickson is now scheduled for a three-week trial in May and will undergo a mental evaluation before then. He faces 44 felony charges for his suspected role in the attack, including first-degree murder.

Erickson told investigators he was forced to help McKinney on the threat of his life, according to testimony at his preliminary trial in September. Prosecutors have worked to poke holes in that narrative, arguing in one example that Erickson had numerous opportunities to warn someone of the attack but did not.

During the January arraignment, a showdown unfolded between defense attorneys and District Court Judge Theresa Slade as the lawyers first asked to reschedule the hearing entirely and then asked for more time to decide if they will enter evidence about their client's mental condition at trial.

They may also want to change their plea at a later time to not guilty by reason of insanity, they said. Defense attorney Julia Stancil said the team did not have time to prepare its plea because their experts and consultants were delayed over the holidays.

“It is too early for us to make these very serious, very important decisions,” she said.

Slade was unflinching in her decision to hold the arraignment that afternoon, which Stancil said forced them to enter a not-guilty plea.

With a plea entered, defense attorney David Kaplan told the court they will enter evidence about Erickson's mental state at the time of the shooting. That official notice by law triggers a mental evaluation of the suspect, Slade said.

Kaplan repeatedly requested more time to decide if they would enter mental condition evidence, which Slade denied.

Kendrick Castillo's father, John Castillo, said he was warned the defense might enter the not-guilty plea. He considers it a stall tactic and a slap in the face to victims.

“I'm kind of appalled as a devastated parent,” he said.

The mental evaluation is different from a competency evaluation, said 18th Judicial District Attorney George Brauchler, and instead helps determine if a suspect could understand right from wrong at the time of the crime.

While speaking with reporters after the hearing, Brauchler said he has not made a decision about pursuing the death penalty.

He had objected to postponing the arraignment while in court.

“There is no need for further delay,” Brauchler said.

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