Steven Jones had faced up to 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 to manslaughter and aggravated assault.
The sentence Tuesday brought little relief to the shooting victims and their families who filled a courtroom in Flagstaff, a mountainous city that is home to Northern Arizona University. School officials said it was the first deadly shooting at the university founded in 1899.
Prison won't be easy for Jones, but “it doesn't bring my son back,” said Brough's father, Doug. “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,” he said. “He's guilty. He pleaded guilty. But he still gets the benefit of the doubt.”
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 learning his punishment.
Standing before the judge in a blue jail-issued jumpsuit, 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 was weeks into his freshman year in college — sheltered and naive, his attorney said — when he and friends walked by an apartment complex that housed fraternity members. One of Jones' friends rang a doorbell at the complex and ran off.
Someone came out and punched Jones in the face, though it's not clear who. His glasses flew to the ground. Jones ran to his car believing he was being chased and verbally attacked to retrieve a gun from his glove box. He walked back toward campus and shined a tactical light affixed to it into the darkness.
Most people thought it was a police officer or security guard's flashlight. No one thought it was a gun, although Jones said he announced it as such and told people to stand down before pulling the trigger and killing Brough.
Nick Piring was struck in the arm and hip as he jumped over a bush to reach Brough, his onetime roommate. “These other guys were angry at us, and I don't know, someone pulled a gun and shot us,” Piring said in a video played in court Tuesday.
Jones, who was trained to use firearms growing up, fired again as a group piled on top of him, trying to wrest away the gun but without aiming the weapon. Nick Prato was struck in the neck and suffered permanent nerve damage. Zientek was hit twice in the back, losing a kidney.
None knew Jones before then. Police arrived to a chaotic scene and separated people while they tried to determine whether there was another shooter. Jones told them he was solely responsible. A jury deadlocked on charges in Jones' first trial in 2017. His attorneys later argued successfully to reduce the first-degree murder charge, which carried a maximum penalty of life in prison upon conviction, to second-degree murder.
But before a retrial could start in January, Jones pleaded guilty. Doug Brough said he supported a plea agreement because of the multiple delays in the case, caused mainly by turnover in Jones' defense team.
Lou Diesel, a longtime attorney in Flagstaff who represented some of the shooting victims, said he had to assure his clients that the case would move forward. “I continue to tell them, this normally doesn't happen. How do you console the inconsolable? How do you do that? The late-night phone calls, the screams, the horror, the depression," he said in court, his voice rising then falling. “We almost lost Claudia.”
Brough's mother, Claudia, described in court 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.”
She spoke after prosecutor Ammon Barker played a 17-minute video that had pictures of Brough smiling and laughing as a child, and at family gatherings, parties 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.
“Wow, what a great life Colin had, cut way too short, for no reason,” said Doug Brough, shaking his head and throwing up his hands as he pleaded for the lengthiest sentence possible. He and his family left the courtroom as the defense began its presentation. Doug Brough later said “we knew it was all 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. Jones long maintained he shot the four in self-defense. But the tone changed Tuesday.
Jones’ actions the night of the shooting were reckless and unjustified, Dupont 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, heckled and assaulted, he said. Anger on the side of fraternity brothers who lived at an apartment complex and who Dupont said reveled in drugs and alcohol and were 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. Barker, the prosecutor, said the victims weren't bullies or thugs and never attacked Jones.
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 must serve at least 85% of the sentence and also gets credit for the seven months he was in jail.
Jones spent much of the time since the shooting in the custody of his parents in metropolitan Phoenix, about 145 miles (233 kilometers) south of Flagstaff. A presentence reported noted zero violations.
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.
No matter the length of punishment, it wouldn't bring peace and closure, Slayton said. “This case has been troubling for our community, for citizens of the state, even for the nation,” he said.