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UNC Charlotte Shooter Pleads Guilty To Murder

The man charged with killing two UNC Charlotte students and wounding four others in a classroom shooting earlier this year pleaded guilty to the crimes Thursday afternoon.

As part of the plea deal reached with Mecklenburg County District Attorney's office, Trystan Terrell, 23, will serve two consecutive life sentences. 

Terrell pled guilty to two counts of first-degree murder, four counts of attempted first degree murder and discharging a firearm on educational property.  Judge Bob Bell made sure he understood his decision.

BELL: Are you in fact guilty of those charges?
BELL: And have you agreed to enter these pleas as part of a plea arrangement?

The arrangement being Terrell will spend his life in prison without the possibility of parole but will avoid the death penalty.

Family members of the victims then addressed the court. Julie Parlier, Ellis Reed Parlier’s mother, spoke first. She described her son as a quiet, intelligent, kind and caring soul.

"His life was ended by a selfish cowardly soulless waste of a human being. May you rot in hell and experience torture every day until you’re dead which may not come soon enough," Parlier said.

Riley Howell’s mother, Natalie, addressed the court as well. Howell charged the defendant when he opened fire in the classroom and was shot in the process.

"Today the defendant will be brought down and locked away forever so he can’t harm others. Today we finish what Riley started."

And then the defendant offered this apology:

"I am so sorry to everybody in here. I really mess up. If I could go back in time even to the very second before I went to the classroom I would do that and back out of it. I’m so sorry. I made a mistake."

What he didn’t offer was an explanation for his actions. But his defense attorney Mike Kabakoff tried to provide some context. Part of that context was sharing that the defendant is autistic. Kabakoff was quick to say that autism does not equal violence. But he said the defendant experienced obsessive thoughts from his autism and that played a role in his decision making process. The defendant was stressed about the cost of school and he said and about finding a job.

"And his obsessive behavior and rule following followed him and made him believe that if he couldn’t pay back his debt that something terrible would happen to him," Kabakoff said. "If he couldn’t get a job in the future something terrible would happen to him. If he couldn’t get any of what others around him were trying to get around him—family, job, house, life, that something terrible would happen to him. And he panicked and he was isolated."

Assistant District Attorney Jay Ashendorf offered details around the timeline of the shooting. He said after the defendant fired shots and was tackled, he remained on the ground waiting for the police. An officer responding to the scene at first thought Terrell was a shooting victim.

"The sergeant asked the defendant ‘where were you hit?’ The defendant responded ‘I was not hit I was tackled.’ The sergeant then asked ‘who were the shooters here?’ The defendant replied ‘I was.’”

Ashendorf said the defendant gave this response when asked why he opened fire:

He said that at some point he had before interested in mass shootings. And that he began planning this around August of 2018. He said he told no one of his plan. He applied for and was granted a gun permit in October of 2018. In December of 2018 he bought the gun and some of the magazines at a local gun store. He also practices at the shooting range over the next few months."

WFAE's Sarah Delia speaks with All Things Considered host Gwendolyn Glenn shortly after the guilty plea.

He added Terrell said he picked UNCC because he knew the campus and had grown frustrated by the debt he was in because of college. He said the day of the shooting Terrell wore all black and brought protective goggles.

After all parties had spoken and court was recessed, Mecklenburg District Attorney Spencer Merriweather addressed reporters outside.

Merriweather said that had this plea not been entered Thursday, the prosecution would have intended to seek the death penalty at trial. But added:

"There is nothing certainly certain about trial. There is great uncertainty even more uncertainty when it comes to a trial involving the death penalty. There are many things that even after securing a conviction and securing a death penalty sentence that the uncertainty remains as that case through goes an appellate review."

Merriweather also said he understands why some may be upset with the DA’s decision including some of the victims and some of their families.

"I understand why they would want a different resolution to this case. Ultimately I have to make the decision on behalf of this entire community as well as with consultation with the victims and I did so."

And when asked about the shooter getting what he wanted—no longer having to worry about work or debt, Merriweather responded it’s not about what the defendant wants. He said, it really is about what is the certain and just outcome.

Sarah Delia covers criminal justice and the arts for WFAE. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.