KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — The man who shot and killed six people and seriously injured two others in and around Kalamazoo has pleaded guilty to the murders.
In a surprise development Monday, Jason Dalton cut short jury selection by agreeing to plead guilty to all six counts of murder, two counts of attempted murder and eight counts of felony use of a firearm that he faced.
FORGOING A TRIAL
Dalton’s attorney, Eusebio Solis, said Dalton decided to plead guilty against his advice to spare survivors the grief of reliving terrible moments during the trial.
“It took me a little by surprise ’cause throughout our discussions he was intent on going to trial,” said Solis. “Though I think he was influenced these last few days by his family. He didn’t want to put his family through it as well as the family of the victims.”
The plea comes a few days after Dalton’s defense attorney said he would not be pursing an insanity defense.
“Well, I thought he was on the same page until this very morning, when in court the prosecution said, ‘We make no offers, but he can plea,'” said Solis. “I said, ‘We’ve considered that several times and rejected it.’ And he wanted to have discussions in private with me.”
Solis said he and his client had been discussing a possible plea for months.
Dalton was relatively quiet in court Monday, speaking only when asked questions.
“I’ve wanted to do this for quite a while,” he told the court when asked if he understood what he was pleading to and whether he was doing so voluntarily.
>>App users: Watch Dalton plead guilty here.
Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting said he wasn’t betting on a guilty plea by Dalton, but he wasn’t shocked, either.
Getting said he was ready to present 130 pieces of evidence during the two-week trial that will never be.
“In a perfect world, it would have been nice to get this thing done sooner rather than later. But the reality is that I’m relieved … we were able to reach this resolution without there having to be a trial,” Getting said. “This is our best-case outcome. This is what’s best for the case and it’s certainly what’s best for our victims.”
He said this twist before trial is rare occurrence.
“It’s unusual for a person to plead guilty to first-degree premeditated murder because the consequence is mandatory. It’s life in prison without the possibility of parole, and we don’t typically see that happen. (Assistant Prosecutor Jeff Williams) and I were talking about it and we’re aware of only a couple of instances ever in this community where a plea has been made to first-degree murder,” he said.
On Feb. 20, 2016, Dalton shot eight people at three locations over the course of about five hours. The shootings started just before 6 p.m., when Dalton repeatedly shot Tiana Carruthers, then 25, near her Richland Township home as she shielded children and others from the gunfire. She was seriously injured, but survived.
Over about the next four hours, Dalton picked up fares in his capacity as an Uber driver, though none of them were hurt.
Shortly after 10 p.m., Dalton fatally shot father and son Rich and Tyler Smith as they checked out a vehicle at Seelye Auto Group on Stadium Drive in Kalamazoo. Tyler Smith’s girlfriend escaped the gunman’s notice by hiding in the car.
Mary Lou Nye, Mary Jo Nye, Judy Brown and Barbara Hawthorne were killed in the parking lot of the Texas Township Cracker Barrel as they returned to their vehicles after catching a show at the Miller Auditorium.
Before her death, Hawthorne insisted medical crews first work on 14-year-old Abigail Kopf, who had been shot in the head. The teenager nearly died, but pulled through.
SURVIVORS: ‘A BIG UNFORTUNATE FAMILY’
The courtroom was packed Monday, with the left side of the room reserved for victims and their families. Among them was Carruthers, relatives of the Smiths and the owner of the dealership where the father and son died.
The survivors could be seen tearfully holding hands as the judge read each victim’s name so Dalton could plead guilty to each charge. When the judge read Carruthers’ name, she cried.
“I was surprised to see so much turnout. I haven’t been in direct contact with everybody, but to know that there was still such a big unfortunate family like this surprised me. It made me feel a little good that everybody was willing to reach out to people that they didn’t really even know. I knew the person sitting on my left but I did not know the person on my right, but they both treated me like I was part of their families,” Bart Nye, the son of Mary Lou Nye, said.
Notably absent from the proceedings was Kopf, whose family found relief from Dalton’s plea.
“You do not understand the relief I feel,” said her mom. “Abbie can go to sleep tonight knowing there’s no way he can get to her. Because that’s what she’s been afraid of.”
“You do not understand the relief I feel,” Abbie Kopf’s mom said of Jason Dalton’s plea. “Abbie can go to sleep tonight knowing there’s no way he can get to her. Because that’s what she’s been afraid of.” The teen, once thought dead, survived shot to head in random shooting spree pic.twitter.com/5ZJkzXCVwn— SusanSamples (@SusanSamples) January 7, 2019
In thanking the victims and families for their patience during the Dalton case, Getting also called attention to a survivor he said sometimes goes unmentioned: Tyler Smith’s girlfriend, Alexis Cornish.
“She was there when Tyler and his dad were killed,” he recounted. “What this young woman went through that night, watching her boyfriend and his father get shot again and again and again and cowering in the back seat of a car wondering how many seconds you have left in your life, and then to be able to have this presence of mind to leave your car and get a phone out of Tyler’s pocket and call 911 to report what had happened was just so extraordinarily brave.”
>>App users: Watch Getting’s response here.
In a statement released Monday afternoon by their attorneys, Dalton’s family offered their condolences to the victims and prayers to Kopf and Carruthers.
“Nothing that we can say is adequate, but please know that our hearts are broken by the suffering which has resulted from the actions of our son and former husband,” the statement reads in part.
It went on to thank the first responders who responded to the shooting scenes and authorities who handled the case, and acknowledged the “love and kindness” shown to the victims by the community.
“We live in a community which has responded to this and other recent tragedies with remarkable grace and strength,” the statement ended.
The Dalton who the court witnessed Monday was very different from the man who was dragged out of court during his preliminary hearing, when Dalton moved toward Carruthers as she testified.
“He was under a great deal of stress. I honestly don’t know what caused that outburst. And that really is the only time he’s ‘misbehaved’ in the courtroom,” Solis said of the May 2016 incident.
On Monday, a more subdued Dalton listened as the judge read each count against him, answering only to plead guilty.
“The public has only seen him in the courtroom when the pressure is on him, and obviously people react differently when they’re under pressure,” Dalton’s defense attorney said. “But I can tell you in private that he has been remorseful during several of my meetings with him.”
Following the crimes, Dalton told investigators that he had been possessed by his Uber app and that it told him who to shoot — a confession an appeals court ruled couldn’t be used at trial because Dalton had told police he didn’t want to talk and asked for a lawyer.
Prosecutor Getting said he’s not sure if there will ever be a “satisfactory” answer as to why Dalton did it.
“The why question is one that haunts us. You know, everybody wants to know,” said Getting. “I don’t know if he will ever say why.”
In a Facebook post Monday afternoon, Carruthers said she was grateful she would not have to “relive the horrors of you gunning me down in trial.”
“But,” she continued, “you at least owe everyone a reason why you committed this (heinous) crime? This isn’t closure, not even close.”
Dalton could provide closure when he gets a chance to speak during his sentencing on Feb. 5.
He faces a mandatory term of life in prison without parole, which will begin after he spends as long as 16 years in prison for the eight felony firearm charges.
Getting said the survivors and victims’ families will also have a chance to address the killer during the sentencing.
—24 Hour News 8’s Heather Walker and Evan Dean contributed to this report.
LEGAL CONSEQUENCES OF PLEA
Dalton’s guilty plea is unusual because there was no deal on the table. He had nothing to lose by making prosecutors prove their case. The prosecution made it clear from the beginning that it would not offer a plea bargain for lesser charges. That means that even if Dalton had gone to trial and was convicted, the result would have been the same as pleading guilty.
The difference is the appeals process. During a trial, a judge has to make many legal decisions, all of which Dalton could have appealed. He gave up those appeals with his plea.
However, Dalton could still attack his guilty plea. Under the law, a judge has to confirm certain details before a defendant can plead guilty. For example, Dalton had to be advised he was giving up certain constitutional rights — to a trial, to testify, to confront witnesses — and he had to acknowledge there were facts that justified his guilty plea. If that’s not done properly, a defendant can challenge a guilty plea and ask that it be withdrawn.
However, the court in this case appeared to do everything correctly.
—24 Hour News 8’s Brady Gillum, a former prosecutor and criminal defense attorney, contributed.