Trystan Andrew Terrell, the gunman who killed two UNC Charlotte students and wounded four others in a classroom last spring, gave a brief, emotional apology and pleaded guilty to murder and other crimes Thursday.
His sentencing has divided prosecutors, the victims and their families over whether a man diagnosed with autism and developmental disabilities should face the death penalty.
As part of his deal with prosecutors, Terrell entered a guilty plea that will keep him behind bars without the possibility of parole, but he won’t face the death penalty.
That outcome has angered some of the surviving victims, family and friends.
During a tense and emotion-packed hearing, Mecklenburg Superior Court Judge Robert Bell accepted the plea and sentenced Terrell to two consecutive life sentences for the killings of 19-year-old Reed Parlier of Midland and Riley Howell, 21, of Waynesville.
“In our ideal world, he would just be taken out back and shot on the spot, in the head, just like he did to Reed,” Parlier’s mother, Julie Parlier, told the Observer after the hearing. “But we know that’s not how, unfortunately, this system works. We told the (district attorney) that that’s what we wanted, and they chose to take the plea.”
Defense Attorney Michael Kabakoff, who represented Terrell, told the courtroom that Terrell was diagnosed with autism and had developmental disabilities and executing him would violate the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
“He is not the worst of the worst,” Kabakoff said.
Autism can influence, but does not cause people to commit extreme violence such as mass shootings, according to literature from the National Institutes of Health.
People diagnosed with autism may face an increased risk of being victims of violence instead perpetrators, the federal agency says.
Mecklenburg County District Attorney Spencer Merriweather said the plea deal was appropriate.
“No court proceeding can ever provide true closure to those who have suffered this kind of trauma,” Merriweather said in a written statement. “But the sentence handed down today does acknowledge the gravity and magnitude of the loss experienced by these families, by those on campus, and by people all across this county.
“It ensures the man who committed these horrible crimes will never harm anyone again.”
‘Rot in hell’
In a nearly full courtroom with heightened security, victims’ families and friends came face to face with Terrell.
He sat or stood looking straight ahead with his head down during most of the hearing.
“If I could go back in time, I would back out of it,” Terrell told the courtroom. “I am so sorry. I made a mistake.”
Even after the guilty plea, it remains unclear why Terrell decided to kill his classmates.
Kabakoff told the courtroom that common motivations for murder did not explain what led to the shooting.
He described Terrell as a loner who did not make friends and could not get a job because he struggled to socially interact with people.
Terrell’s autism impeded his ability to talk to others, Kabakoff said.
He was depressed, socially isolated and mourning the death of his mother by the time he enrolled at UNCC, the attorney said.
Terrell spent hours a day on the internet, Kabaoff said. Often, he said, Terrell would watch videos about school shootings.
When it was her turn to address the court, Parlier’s mother, Julie, choked back tears. “We will never forgive him for his actions,” she said. “The defendant wanted to kill someone? He should have turned the gun on himself... May he rot in hell.”
Four other students were injured in the shooting: 23-year-old Emily Houpt of Charlotte; 20-year-old Rami Alramadhan of Saihat, Saudia Arabia; 20-year-old Sean Dehart of Apex; and 19-year-old Drew Pescaro of Apex.
A couple hours before the hearing Thursday, Pescaro tweeted: “For anyone who was not inside of Kennedy 236 between the time of 5:30PM - 6:00PM on April 30 and wants to TELL ME HOW TO FEEL, keep it to your self. You can’t feel what I feel and don’t try to tell me how to feel.”
Ahead of the hearing, Pescaro also had tweeted criticism of the potential plea.
Former senior class president Kristine Slade wrote on Twitter Wednesday that she agreed with Pescaro: “The judicial system has always been messed up, but this... a PLEA DEAL for committing a school shooting.. is messed up on a new level.”
Tristan Field, a 20-year-old student at UNCC, was in the classroom when the shooting broke out. Field said it was unjust that the killer’s life was spared.
“He came into my classroom, killed two of my classmates, injured four others and ruined the rest of our mental health of the entire classroom and the entire school in general,” Field told the Observer. “Why shouldn’t he be put to death?”
In a written statement, UNCC Chancellor Phil Dubois said the plea agreement will help bring closure to the campus.
“(The plea deal) allows our community to continue healing and brings a definite end to the criminal proceedings,” Dubois said.
Thomas Howell, whose son Riley was killed in the shooting, praised prosecutors, saying they did the best they could given the circumstances.
“Obviously, we’re glad for this to be over with, and I think that the D.A. did a wonderful job under the current laws that are in place,” Thomas Howell told the Observer. “And they did a wonderful job with communication and with us, and it’s just a horribly unique, tragic situation that didn’t really fit a lot of other case profiles.”
The day of the shooting
Prosecutors offered new details in court about Terrell’s whereabouts the day of the shooting and the scene in the Kennedy building classroom.
According to the prosecutor, Terrell told police he had started his plans in August 2018 for a mass shooting. He bought bullet magazines for his gun at a local gun shop and practiced at a shooting range for “a few months,” Ashendorf said.
At about 12:30 p.m. April 30, Terrell rode the light rail to the school and walked around campus for hours, Assistant District Attorney Jay Ashendorf said, recounting what he said Terrell told police.
Terrell entered a classroom in the Kennedy building about 10 minutes after an anthropology class had started at 5:30 p.m. He pulled out a 9 mm pistol and fired what police determined to be 17 shots.
He fired “indiscriminately” at students seated at a table closest to the door he entered, Ashendorf said. Terrell told police he didn’t target any particular students and didn’t know any of the students he saw when he began to shoot, Ashendorf said.
Howell tackled the gunman to the floor, according to the prosecutor.
Police found Terrell, Parlier and Howell on the floor. When an officer asked Terrell if he’d been shot, Terrell replied: “I was not. I was tackled,” Ashendorf said.
“Who was the shooter?” the officer then asked, according to Ashendorf.
“I was,” Terrell replied.