Jason J. Eaton pleads not guilty to shooting three students of Palestinian descent visiting Burlington, Vermont
A 48-year-old man accused of shooting three men of Palestinian descent in Burlington Saturday night pleaded not guilty to three charges of attempted second degree murder.
Jason J. Eaton, of Burlington, was arraigned in Chittenden County Superior Court Monday morning. He’ll be held in prison without bail, and a hearing will be scheduled in coming days to decide whether he should continue to be held without bail.
“Today, our office filed charges against Mr. Eaton… for the senseless, unprovoked violence against these three young men,” said Chittenden County State’s Attorney Sarah George during a press conference held in Burlington on Monday. “These are three life felonies.”
All three shooting victims are 20-year-old students at U.S. colleges and were in Burlington visiting one student’s family during Thanksgiving break.
According to the Burlington Police Department, Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmad were walking on North Prospect Street when Eaton, who’s white, allegedly stepped off a porch and confronted them, and without speaking, fired at least four rounds from a pistol.
Court records show Awartani was hit in the spine, Abdalhamid in the glute and Ali Ahmad in the upper chest.
All three victims are in the ICU according to the uncle of Awartani, Burlington resident Rich Price.
He shared this news at a press conference Monday, where he also said that the three young men were visiting his house in Burlington.
“They were our houseguests for Thanksgiving, as they have the past few Thanksgivings,” Price said. “We had just been to my 8-year-old twins’ birthday party – these three college students, who, if you're in college, who wants to go to an 8-year-old birthday party? But these three guys did. And they came, they played with my boys. We had just come home, and they were walking around the block. And this is when this happened.”
Price said he’s been with Awartani, Abdalhamid and Ali Ahmad almost constantly as they’ve received care at UVM Medical Center.
“I'm blown away by their resilience, by their good humor in the face of these difficult times,” Price said.
Awartani is unlikely to be able to move his legs again – that’s according to his mother and Rich Price’s sister, Elizabeth Price, who spoke to NPR this morning from her home in Ramallah, in the Israeli occupied West Bank.
The bullet appears to be lodged in Awartani’s spine, and it’s too risky to do surgery, Elizabeth Price said.
“The doctors currently say that he'll have it for the rest of his life,” Price said.
Price said that Awartani is an “incredibly strong young man,” and while he has been making jokes about the situation, she said the enormity of the situation is starting to sink in.
“I think the adrenaline has left his body and he is now confronting the almost potentially irreversible change to his life, and what it means for his future,” Price said.
BPD says the shooting took place in front of the apartment building where Eaton lives.
According to the police affidavit, when authorities met Eaton at the apartment Sunday, he “made a statement to the effect of, ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’”
Court records say police found the same brand of bullets inside Eaton’s apartment that they found at the scene of the shooting.
“We still do not know as much as we want to know,” Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad said during the press conference Monday. “Even with this arrest, we are still working, there is more investigation to be done. And that includes trying to determine motive.”
At the time of the shooting, court records show that two of the victims were wearing keffiyehs, and that they were speaking a mix of English and Arabic at the time.
Local, state and federal officials provided an update during a press conference today, which you can watch here:
The victims' families and multiple civil rights organizations are asking for the shooting to be investigated as a hate crime.
“Although we do not yet have evidence to support a hate crime enhancement, there is no question this was a hateful act,” said Sarah George, the Chittenden County State’s Attorney.
Vermont doesn’t have a standalone hate crime charge; instead, prosecutors can add a hate crime "enhancement" if the suspect’s actions are motivated by bias towards a protected class, which include race, gender identity and sexual orientation. The enhancement increases the criminal penalties a suspect faces, depending on the severity of the underlying crime.
But it’s proven difficult for prosecutors to secure hate crime convictions in Vermont, even if evidence suggests some level of bias. State prosecutors filed 66 hate crime charges between 2017 and 2021, according to the Vermont Judiciary. In that time there were only seven hate crime convictions.
The Legislature did make changes to the statute to make it easier to prosecute hate crimes by classifying them as actions “motivated in whole or in part” by a "victim’s actual or perceived” identity. Previously, the statute said the crime needed to be “maliciously motivated.”
Federal prosecutors could also bring a hate crime charge, and U.S Attorney for the District of Vermont Nikolas Kerest said during Monday’s press conference that his office and the Department of Justice will “follow the facts where they lead.”
“The priorities of the Attorney General of the United States and my office are to protect public safety, ensure civil rights are protected and to follow the rule of law. Following the rule of law means not making pre-judgment and requires following the facts where they lead,” Kerest said.
In a statement released Monday, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland made reference to the Burlington shooting and said there is “understandable fear” in Arab, Jewish and, Muslim communities across our country since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack in Israel
“That investigation, including whether this is a hate crime, is ongoing,” Garland said.
At Monday’s press conference, Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger called Saturday’s shooting “one of the most shocking and disturbing events in this city’s history.”
Weinberger says he’s spoken with President Joe Biden and touted coordination between local and federal law enforcement that resulted in the detainment and eventual arrest of Eaton less than 24 hours after the shooting.
At the same time, the mayor acknowledged the impact of the incident on Burlington’s Palestinian, Arab and Muslim communities.
“These law enforcement actions, while outstanding, will not erase the outcomes of Saturday night’s violence,” Weinberger said. “It is incumbent on all of us to continue supporting the victims, their families and their communities.”
Both Rich Price, Hisham Awartani’s uncle, and the uncle of Kinnan Abdalhamid, Radi Tamimi, said during Monday’s press conference that their nephews weren’t safe in Burlington.
“Kinnan grew up in the West Bank, and we always thought that that could be more of a risk in terms of his safety, and sending him here would be a, you know, the right decision,” Tamimi said. “We feel somehow betrayed in that decision, here. And, you know, we're just trying to come to terms with everything.”
Rich Price said of his sister, Elizabeth, who lives in the Israeli occupied West Bank: “People often ask me, ‘Aren't you worried about your sister? Aren't you worried about your nephews and your niece?’ And the reality is, as difficult as their life is, they are surrounded by an incredible sense of community.”
Price called it something like “tragic irony” for his nephew and two friends to be shot in Burlington, Vermont. “To have them come stay with me for Thanksgiving and have something like this happen, speaks to the level of civic vitriol, speaks to the level of hatred that exists in some corners of this country. It speaks to a sickness of gun violence that exists in this country,” Price said. “And I'm proud of – even though this is devastating that this happened in this community, I'm really proud and grateful to the community that is here and has rallied around our family and these boys.”
Rich Price’s sister, Elizabeth, says her son and his friends have all known each other since they attended the Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker school in the West Bank, for 12 years or so.
“I've had so many calls from the Quaker school,” Price told NPR. “All the teachers remember them. You know, they participated in the Model United Nations, and they'd come home to my house because I was nearby, and they would sit up late, strategize on the different stances that they were taking.”
Price said it’s important for her son and his friends to be seen as “fully-fledged people.”
“And they are the brightest of the brightest,” she said.
Price said Awartani, who is a student at Brown University, is studying mathematics and archeology, while Ali Ahmad, a Trinity College student, is studying mathematics and doing pre-med. Price said Ali Ahmad also recently became a certified EMT.
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Abdalhamid studies biology and runs track at Haverford College.
“They went to the U.S. to realize their potential so that they could come back and contribute,” Price said. “America is a place where you can get the best education, but we need to guarantee that the people who seek education in the U.S. are welcomed.”
This story includes reporting contributed by NPR's Brian Mann in Israel and the Israeli Occupied West Bank.
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