A tough case opens a window onto the pain of untreated mental illness


The team that defended Aaron Ybarra included, from left, Rachel Dryden, Jeffery Spencer, and Ramona Brandes. Not pictured is Ryan Gray.

For more than two years, public defender Ramona Brandes and a team of support staff gave their all on behalf of a mentally ill client who killed a student at Seattle Pacific University and wounded two others in a crime that captured international attention.

No one questioned Aaron Ybarra’s mental illness. The question before the jury was much narrower and more subjective: Did he have the ability to understand right from wrong when he pulled the trigger on June 5, 2014? In other words, was he insane as defined by criminal statutes?

Ramona and her team did not win. Jurors said he was clearly mentally ill, but when they handed down their verdict on Nov. 16, they found him guilty of first-degree murder and other charges. Even so, Ramona and her team knows they presented a full picture of this young man and showed him for who he is – a decent person with a supportive family, a long history of mental illness, and an unfortunate lack of support from various systems that might have helped him.

After the jury convicted him, some jurors wept. Others said they wanted to hug his mother.

“He had a long history of struggling with his mental capacity and mental illness, a history that was very well documented. We worked hard to put together a story that walked the jury through his life in his shoes,” said Ramona, who works for the Northwest Defenders Division in the King County Department of Public Defense. “But as with any case, there are always facts beyond change that are sometimes more than what a jury can overcome. That was the situation in this case.”

Rachel Dryden, the mitigation specialist on the case, said she was struck by Aaron Ybarra – a man who was both very nice and clearly ill. “He was a very compelling person to be advocating for.”

It was also a learning experience for members of the team. Despite public perception, a defense of not guilty by reason of insanity is rare in criminal cases. Ramona, who has handled more than a dozen murder cases and has worked in public defense for nearly 20 years, said this was the first insanity case she has taken to trial.

Jeffery Spencer, the paralegal who worked with Ramona, called it “an amazing learning experience.” When one uses a not-guilty-by-insanity argument, he noted, “the defense is putting on the case; the burden of proof was on us.” All told, the defense called about 12 witnesses, a large number in a case where the fact pattern was not in dispute.

The case thrust Ramona and her team into the spotlight. Initially, media interest in the case was intense, and she held several impromptu press conferences in the courthouse hallways. One news photo shows her nearly crushed by a phalanx of reporters hoisting cameras and microphones. Over time, the press interest lessened, but the case remained a compelling one – in part, she noted, “because it’s rare to have a shooting at a school with a surviving perpetrator who is willing to talk about it openly.”

All told, Aaron spent two days on the witness stand, testifying about his mental condition on the day of the shooting. He talked about the voices he heard; how he tried to stop the voices by using alcohol; how he failed to fully comprehend what he was doing. By talking openly, Ramona said, “Mr. Ybarra has educated a lot of people about the need to look at the big picture and how we address mental illness in our society. If there’s any good that comes out of it, this is it.”

Though the case was a challenging one, Ramona said she had great support from her colleagues at the Northwest Defenders Division and from her core team members – Rachel, Jeffery, and Ryan Gray, an investigator. Others in the office helped as well, including Josh Malle, a transcriptionist; a group that ensured Aaron had the clothes he needed for trial – Mickayla Rogers, John Day, Jeff Young, Elizabeth Noonan, and Veronica Gomes; and attorney Miranda Maurmann, who assisted during voir dire.

“More so than ever before, I have been impressed with the way this office supports one another and will do whatever it takes for our clients,” she said in an email to the division after the trial. “Although this week is difficult, my heart is warmed when I think of so many of you who have helped me these past two months.”

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