Steven Jones struck a deal with state prosecutors in the Northern Arizona University shooting case and lowered his maximum time in prison in exchange for pleading guilty.
The deal was accepted by the court Thursday and stopped the coming retrial for the NAU shooting just weeks before the nearly month-long ordeal was set to begin.
Jones is now facing five to 10 years in prison for shooting four university students rather than the jury trial that could have ended in him acquitted on all charges or sentenced him to more than 50 years in prison if found guilty. The trial was set to include second-degree murder and six aggravated assault charges.
Jones’ plea deal for manslaughter and three aggravated assault charges ensured that many witnesses, friends and family members on both sides of the case will not have to testify or be cross-examined in one of Coconino County’s highest-profile cases.
The victims, their families and the greater Flagstaff community waited four years after three university students were shot, one fatally. There have been seemingly countless motions, hearings and one mistrial that has now all led to a guilty plea that has kept many set to testify from being forced to relive the first trial and their memories from that night.
And the question that must have been asked by everyone involved: Is the deal worth it?
How we got to a plea deal
While Jones had three new lawyers who did not go through the first trial, they were by no means out of the loop.
The lawyers had access to every piece of evidence from the first trial that ended in a hung jury, including videos from cross examinations recorded and posted on YouTube. They also hired a private investigator to bring in additional evidence. Additionally, lawyer Burges McCowan helped defend Jones in the first trial, and was undoubtedly helpful for the defense's new lead, Christopher DuPont.
Their most consequential tactic that led to the plea deal was using what was known about how the jury read the first trial to drop the first-degree murder charge.
In 2017, the jurors told Judge Dan Slayton after the trial they unanimously declined to charge first-degree murder, but were split, 6 to 6 on second-degree murder. When asked if they needed more time to deliberate to come to a consensus, they wrote in response:
“We do not feel that additional deliberations or assistance will help us reach a verdict,” a juror wrote, according to court filings.
The defense's tactics to make a motion to the Arizona Court of Appeals eventually forced the Coconino County Attorney’s Office to lower the charge to second-degree murder, which comes with a lower maximum sentence. The message from the defense team to the prosecution, however, was undoubtedly clear: the jury did not find Jones guilty of first-degree murder.
It is not clear how much the split 6-to-6 decision on second-degree murder impacted their decision making. At the change of plea hearing, Coconino County Attorney Bill Ring declined to answer questions beyond handing out a prepared written statement.
"A prison term is mandatory," Ring wrote in his statement. "The incident occurred on October 9, 2015 at NAU. The function of our process is to do justice. This plea is a meaningful step in that direction. We reserve the balance of our statements for the sentencing phase of proceedings."
After Ring's office dropped the charge last month, DuPont’s team then attempted to push more evidence and undermine the state's characterization of the dead victim Colin Brough as a "peaceful."
The expected defense
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The defense's strategy in the retrial was expected to be the same as the first trial: Jones acted in self defense. But the defense team was planning on using new evidence from its private investigator to its advantage.
To Jones' lawyers, Brough was a man who became aggressive when he was under the influence of drugs and alcohol, as he was the night of the shooting.
The defense attempted to introduce a photograph from an unrelated night where Brough appeared aggressive toward someone taking the photo. DuPont said he wanted to show the jurors what Jones was looking at when Jones fired his gun.
"Colin Brough took advantage of any opportunity he had to charge anyone he had violent feelings toward," DuPont said at the final hearing before the retrial. "He charged the camera as he charged my client."
But Slayton denied the photo of Brough as evidence.
After DuPont’s team attempted to introduce video evidence and continue their allegations that Brough was apt to fighting while intoxicated. At the hearing, DuPont’s team showed the video of a massive group of what was alleged college students fighting in a complex. DuPont said they identified and interviewed people from the video to support their statements that Brough was a part of the video.
Slayton said the videos allegedly showing Brough and many other fighting in a crowd at a party could not, and would not, be shown to jurors.
“It’d be a 10-minute verdict in favor of [Jones],” Slayton said, without ruling whether Brough was truly in the poorly lit video. “It would be using the acts of other people to support a finding of not guilty. I’m not going to allow it.”
While undoubtedly losing the strength of the visual aides was a blow for the defense, the judge did allow the attorneys to refer to and ask witnesses about their allegation that Brough was known to fight while intoxicated. This could still work to the benefit of the defense, being able to undermine the witnesses, family members and the three boys who were the alleged victims of aggravated assault.
But would it have been enough to reach a different verdict than another hung jury?
Losses on both sides
In the eyes of Jones, the victims and their families, revisiting a traumatic moment in a stale courtroom surrounded by the watchful eyes of strangers can be an emotional ordeal. Add in the possibility of live-streamed video from the media, and there develops a recipe for a high-stress moment most people would want to avoid.
Add in that the battle before the retrial left both teams with losses: the evidence for Jones' defense had not changed much from the first trial, and prosecutors were not aiming at a high prison sentence after the first-degree murder charge was dropped.
It could be questioned whether Nick Prato, Kyle Zientek, Nick Piring or any of the families wanted to endure attacks against their character or their dead friend and son. Similarly, did Jones or his family want to endure the public attention a second time?
For the attorneys, no amount of confidence can remove the questions the entire Flagstaff community had. Would the jurors in a retrial have found Jones guilty or not guilty? And on what counts? Would they have been unable to reach a verdict a second time, as the first jury did?
The questions were numerous, and the plea deal has made the path forward neat and clear. The plea deal has created a relatively calm end to a technical case filled with motions to the Arizona Court of Appeals and State Bar of Arizona investigations into Jones' former lawyers.
At the Thursday hearing, McCowan said Jones’ decision to plea guilty was an emotional one for his client. He said the stability of the deal, while undoubtedly meaning certain jail time, was a large factor in the agreement.
Regardless of whether the plea deal was right thing to do, it will put an end to a trial with seemingly endless delays. If any of the people involved have any doubts or holdouts about the deal, they will likely voice them at the upcoming sentencing hearing on Feb. 11.
And attorneys indicated on Thursday that the sentencing hearing will be an all-day affair.
Scott Buffon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter @scottbuffon or by phone at (928) 556-2250.