Court Proceedings A Double-Edged Sword For Victims' Families
John Castillo wanted the teens suspected of killing his son to look him in the face. He wanted them to see his pain.
So for nearly two years, Castillo and his wife Maria have attended dozens of hearings in the cases of the two teens charged with opening fire in their Douglas County school and killing the Castillos’ 18-year-old son Kendrick, weeks before his graduation.
The Castillos sat through dry legal arguments and hours of tearful testimony. Every hearing is a step closer to some semblance of justice, Castillo said, but it’s also a sharp reminder of the killing of their son — salt in a wound that has never healed.
The news of another mass shooting about 40 miles north at a King Soopers store in Boulder has brought Castillo full circle, he said. He knows what the families of the 10 people shot and killed while working and grocery shopping will face in the months and years ahead.
“It’s important the victims’ families prepare themselves for the long haul,” Castillo said in a phone interview while standing in the cemetery where Kendrick is buried. “The devastation and loss is only the beginning when the perpetrator survives something like this.”
The families of the 10 people shot and killed March 22, as well as others working and shopping in the King Soopers during the gunfire, face a long, arduous court process ahead, experts on victim advocacy and mass trauma said. The criminal legal system can help provide a sense of closure and answer victims’ questions, they said, but it can also force the survivors to repeatedly re-live their trauma.
“The court process is definitely re-traumatizing for people,” said Melissa Secrease, director of victim services for the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, who worked on both the 2019 STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting and the 2012 Aurora theater shooting. “But at the end of the day, when the court process is over, can there be healing? Absolutely.”
The man suspected of opening fire and killing 10 strangers in the grocery store made his first court appearance March 25 — the first step in what will likely be a lengthy and arduous court process. The hearing lasted less than 10 minutes and took place in a mostly empty courtroom. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited the number of people allowed in most courtrooms across the state and, instead, victims’ families and others impacted by the shooting tuned in by phone or video.
Even in the brief hearing, the suspect’s attorneys said they needed time to evaluate their client’s mental health. Because of that, the suspect won’t be back in court for another two to three months. And when he does appear in court next, the main purpose of that hearing will be to schedule more hearings.
Colorado’s recent history shows that court proceedings for mass shooters can stretch for years, especially if the defendant must undergo mental health evaluations. The suspected King Soopers shooter’s case is now the third ongoing criminal case against an accused mass shooter in the state.
“Waiting for justice — that’s the hardest part,” Castillo said.
Although one of the teens charged in the 2019 STEM School Highlands Ranch shooting pleaded guilty in February 2020, his co-defendant’s case remains open and is set for trial in May in Douglas County — more than two years after the shooting.
Further south, the case against the man who confessed to shooting and killing three and injuring nine people in a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood in 2015 remains open. Proceedings have been postponed indefinitely as the defendant receives mental health treatment at the state hospital after a judge ruled he was incompetent to stand trial.
The Aurora theater shooter was sentenced more than three years after he murdered 12 people, though his three-month trial was also lengthened because the jury had to decide whether to impose the death penalty. That’s no longer an option, as Colorado outlawed capital punishment last year.
The criminal legal process can help answer important questions that aren’t always answerable if a shooter is killed or dies by suicide instead of being arrested, said Dean Kilpatrick, director of the National Mass Violence Victimization Resource Center.
“One of the big things that survivors and victims want to know is, ‘Why me, why did this happen?‘” he said. “That’s something they really want to know and can sometimes learn about during the court process.”
But proceedings are a double-edged sword, he said. The adversarial nature of criminal court means that sometimes victims can feel like they’re the ones being put on trial, especially if they have to testify because they were witnesses to the crime.
Court hearings are also often postponed, Secrease said, meaning victims and survivors will spend time and energy steeling themselves for a hearing only to have it rescheduled.
“That healing process through the court process is never a straight line — never,” she said.
Many of the Boulder shooting victims’ families are still focusing on more immediate concerns than the long road ahead. They must plan funerals amid a pandemic. They must deal with empty apartments and sort through the possessions of their loved ones. Families might have to retrieve some victims’ cars, left at the store where they died.
“An incident of mass violence like what happened in Boulder basically changes your life pretty much forever,” Kilpatrick said. “It doesn’t mean that the rest of your life will be dominated by this. It doesn’t mean that you can never be happy after this… but it does mean that life is just different after this.”
Money distributed by the nonprofit Colorado Healing Fund will help victims with their immediate needs, said Steve Siegel, who retired from the Denver District Attorney’s Office after 36 years as a victim advocate and now serves on the fund’s board of trustees. The money will also help those impacted in the months and years ahead by paying for counseling and other mental health services.
“We know it’s a long-term deal to be there in support,” he said.
Even beyond those immediately impacted, trauma from the Boulder shooting will affect layers of people in Boulder and across the state, he said. Not only those in the store who were not injured, but also the workers caring for the victims and a wide spectrum of people across Colorado.
The shooting, like so many others in U.S. history, disrupted many peoples’ sense of safety in routine activities.
“These are people who went to do something that is a normal part of their life” like shopping and working, Siegel said. “Those are all things that you take for granted. When they are exploded, that impact changes your ability to rely on your everyday life patterns.”
The reality that violence can happen even within our most routine moments is difficult to grasp, said John Nicoletti, a Denver psychologist who is an expert in trauma. People should not feel ashamed to ask for professional help. It is possible to find equilibrium and establish a new normal, he said.
“I’m a firm believer in self-help and stuff, but the reality is that if after a few weeks the ghosts are still haunting you, look for resources — counselors or clerics,” he said.
Castillo created a new routine after Kendrick was killed. Every afternoon, he and his wife visit his son’s grave in Littleton. They sometimes leave messages to Kendrick in chalk.
“Doesn’t seem like a person could do it for two years, but it’s really not that hard,” Castillo said.
Castillo loses sleep over the possibility that he could die in an accident or otherwise miss the conviction of one of his son’s alleged killers. While conviction and sentencing will end some uncertainty, he said, what does it even mean to heal from that sort of loss?
“I think at this point, I don’t know what healing looks like,” he said in a quiet voice.
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