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Ex-University of Arizona grad student gets life sentence for killing professor on campus

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Ex-University of Arizona grad student gets life sentence for killing professor on campus
News

News

Ex-University of Arizona grad student gets life sentence for killing professor on campus

2024-06-25 06:51 Last Updated At:07:00

TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — A former University of Arizona graduate student was sentenced Monday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for fatally shooting a hydrology professor on campus months after he was expelled.

A Pima County jury last month found Murad Dervish guilty of first-degree murder in the death of Thomas Meixner, who was shot 11 times near his office on Oct. 5, 2022.

Meixner, 52, headed the university’s Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences. Dervish, 48, was in the master’s degree program in atmospheric sciences.

Authorities said Dervish was banned from the school in January 2022 and later expelled for ongoing issues with professors after he received a bad grade.

Jurors deliberated for less than three hours on May 21 before reaching their verdicts against Dervish.

He also was convicted on five other felony counts, including aggravated assault for a bullet that grazed a building manager.

During the trial, Dervish’s attorney said his client was in the midst of a psychotic episode at the time of the shooting and urged jurors to consider a lesser charge of second-degree murder that could have meant confinement in a psychiatric hospital, rather than a prison cell.

But prosecutors said evidence showed Dervish planned Meixner’s killing and bought a 9 mm handgun a month before using it in the shooting.

According to a criminal complaint, a flyer with a photograph of Dervish was then circulated to university staff in February 2022 with instructions to call 911 if Dervish ever entered the John W. Harshbarger Building, where Meixner worked.

The complaint also said Dervish was barred from school property and was the subject of several reports of harassment and threats to staff members working at Harshbarger.

Witnesses testified that Dervish was wearing a surgical mask and baseball cap as a disguise when he showed up outside Meixner’s office and shot the professor.

Dervish fled the scene but was arrested three hours later after Arizona state troopers stopped his car on a highway more than 120 miles (190 kilometers) northwest of Tucson.

Authorities said a loaded handgun was found in the vehicle, and the ammunition was consistent with the shell casings found at the shooting scene.

“The man who took my husband’s life will spend the rest of his life in prison, but that doesn’t bring Tom back,” Kathleen Meixner said in a statement after the sentencing. “My sons will never see their father again in this life. The University of Arizona lost a treasured professor. The community lost a brilliant scientist."

FILE - Arizona graduate student Murad Dervish sits in Pima County Superior Court, May 8, 2024, in Tuscon, Ariz. (Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star via AP, File)

FILE - Arizona graduate student Murad Dervish sits in Pima County Superior Court, May 8, 2024, in Tuscon, Ariz. (Mamta Popat/Arizona Daily Star via AP, File)

A court has convicted Alsu Kurmasheva, a Russian-American journalist for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, of spreading false information about the Russian army and sentenced her to 6½ years in prison after a secret trial, court records and officials said Monday.

The conviction in Kazan, the capital of Russia's central region of Tatarstan, came on Friday, the same day a court in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg convicted Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich of espionage and sentenced him to 16 years in prison in a case that the U.S. called politically motivated.

Kurmasheva, a 47-year-old editor for RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir language service, was convicted of “spreading false information” about the military, according to the website of the Supreme Court of Tatarstan. Court spokesperson Natalya Loseva confirmed Kurmasheva's conviction and revealed the sentence to The Associated Press by phone in the case classified as secret.

Kurmasheva was ordered to serve the sentence in a medium-security penal colony, Loseva said.

“My daughters and I know Alsu has done nothing wrong. And the world knows it too. We need her home,” Kurmasheva's husband, Pavel Butorin, said in a post Monday on X.

He had said last year the charges stemmed from a book the Tatar-Bashkir service released in 2022 called “No to War” — “a collection of short stories of Russians who don’t want their country to be at war with Ukraine.” Butorin had said the book doesn’t contain any “false information.”

Asked about the case, RFE/RL President and CEO Stephen Capus denounced the trial and conviction of Kurmasheva as “a mockery of justice.”

“The only just outcome is for Alsu to be immediately released from prison by her Russian captors,” he said in a statement to the AP.

“It’s beyond time for this American citizen, our dear colleague, to be reunited with her loving family,” Capus said.

Kurmasheva, who holds U.S. and Russian citizenship and lives in Prague with her husband and two daughters, was taken into custody in October 2023 and charged with failing to register as a foreign agent while collecting information about the Russian military.

Later, she was also charged with spreading “false information” about the Russian military under legislation that effectively criminalized any public expression about the war in Ukraine that deviates from the Kremlin line. The legislation was adopted in March 2022, just days after the Kremlin sent troops into Ukraine, and has since been used to target Kremlin critics at home and abroad, implicating scores of people in criminal cases and sending dozens to prison.

Kurmasheva was initially stopped in June 2023 at Kazan International Airport after traveling to Russia the previous month to visit her ailing elderly mother. Officials confiscated her U.S. and Russian passports and fined her for failing to register her U.S. passport. She was waiting for her passports to be returned when she was arrested on new charges in October that year. RFE/RL has repeatedly called for her release.

RFE/RL was told by Russian authorities in 2017 to register as a foreign agent, but it has challenged Moscow’s use of foreign agent laws in the European Court of Human Rights. The organization has been fined millions of dollars by Russia.

In February, RFE/RL was outlawed in Russia as an undesirable organization. Its Tatar-Bashkir service is the only major international news provider reporting in those languages, in addition to Russian, to audiences in the multiethnic, Muslim-majority Volga-Urals region.

The swift and secretive trials of Kurmasheva and Gershkovich in Russia’s highly politicized legal system raised hopes for a possible prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington. Russia has previously signaled a possible exchange involving Gershkovich, but said a verdict in his case must come first.

Arrests of Americans are increasingly common in Russia, with nine U.S. citizens known to be detained there as tensions between the two countries have escalated over fighting in Ukraine.

Gershkovich, 32, was arrested March 29, 2023, while on a reporting trip to the Ural Mountains city of Yekaterinburg. Authorities claimed, without offering any evidence, that he was gathering secret information for the U.S.

He has been behind bars since his arrest, time that will be counted as part of his sentence. Most of that was in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison — a czarist-era lockup used during Josef Stalin’s purges, when executions were carried out in its basement. He was transferred to Yekaterinburg for the trial.

Gershkovich was the first U.S. journalist arrested on espionage charges since Nicholas Daniloff in 1986, at the height of the Cold War. Foreign journalists in Russia were shocked by Gershkovich’s arrest, even though the country has enacted increasingly repressive laws on freedom of speech after sending troops into Ukraine.

U.S. President Joe Biden said after his conviction that Gershkovich “was targeted by the Russian government because he is a journalist and an American.”

U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield accused Moscow last week of treating “human beings as bargaining chips.” She singled out Gershkovich and ex-Marine Paul Whelan, 53, a corporate security director from Michigan, who is serving a 16-year sentence after being convicted on spying charges that he and the U.S. denied.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that when it comes to Gershkovich, Whelan and other Americans wrongfully detained in Russia and elsewhere, the U.S. is working on the cases “quite literally every day.”

Sam Greene of the Center for European Policy Analysis said the conviction and sentencing of Kurmasheva and Gershkovich on the same day “suggests — but does not prove — that the Kremlin is preparing a deal. More likely, they are preparing to offer up a negotiating table that Washington will find it difficult to ignore.”

In a series of posts on X, Greene stressed that “the availability of a negotiating table shouldn’t be confused with the availability of a deal,” and that Moscow has no interest in releasing its prisoners — but it is likely to "seek the highest possible price for its bargaining chips, and to seek additional concessions along the way just to keep the talks going.”

Washington “should obviously do what it can” to get Gershkovich, Kurmasheva, imprisoned opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza and other political prisoners out, he said, adding: “But if Moscow demands what it really wants — the abandonment of Ukraine — what then?”

FILE - Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Tatar-Bashkir service, attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia on April 1, 2024. A Russian court has convicted Kurmasheva of spreading false information about the Russian army and sentenced her to 6½ years in prison after a secret trial, court records and officials said Monday July 22, 2024. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Tatar-Bashkir service, attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia on April 1, 2024. A Russian court has convicted Kurmasheva of spreading false information about the Russian army and sentenced her to 6½ years in prison after a secret trial, court records and officials said Monday July 22, 2024. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Tatar-Bashkir service, attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia on May 31, 2024. A Russian court has convicted Kurmasheva of spreading false information about the Russian army and sentenced her to 6½ years in prison after a secret trial, court records and officials said Monday July 22, 2024. (AP Photo, File)

FILE - Alsu Kurmasheva, an editor for the U.S. government-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's Tatar-Bashkir service, attends a court hearing in Kazan, Russia on May 31, 2024. A Russian court has convicted Kurmasheva of spreading false information about the Russian army and sentenced her to 6½ years in prison after a secret trial, court records and officials said Monday July 22, 2024. (AP Photo, File)

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