One of the three Palestinian college students who were shot while walking in Vermont may not be able to move his legs for the rest of his life after a bullet became lodged in his spine, according to his family, who shared his account of the attack with CNN.
A 20-year-old junior at Brown University, Hisham Awartani, is starting to come to terms with the “very long road he has in front of him” after he and two longtime friends from the Israeli-occupied West Bank were shot while strolling through Burlington on Saturday, his mother, Elizabeth Price, said.
Awartani has an “incomplete spinal injury,” meaning he can feel his legs but can’t move them, Price told CNN’s Poppy Harlow from Amman, Jordan, Tuesday morning. She said she is working to travel to the US to be with her son and hopes to arrive in about 24 hours.
“The last I knew, he was still in the ICU, immobilized, to try and get the swelling down on his back,” Price said.
Awartani’s clavicle is also broken and he has a fractured thumb, Price said. And because of the spinal injury, he has difficulty regulating his body temperature. He is expected to have between one and four weeks in spinal trauma care, followed by months in physical therapy, Price said.
King Abdullah II of Jordan has offered his support, Price said.
“The king’s personal physician has reached out to me to convey his majesty’s concern for Hisham and the other boys, and is hoping to send a specialist to meet Hisham and identify what kind of support Hisham needs,” she told CNN.
Price previously said she believes her son has the determination to regain movement in his legs, though the doctors told her it was currently not possible.
“He’s just a very resilient young man and he’s been trying to keep everyone’s spirits up by joking and just trying to be as calm as possible,” Price said. “We are determined to work with him and support him and get the best possible care.”
The suspect in the attack, 48-year-old Jason J. Eaton, was arrested Sunday and charged with three counts of attempted murder, to which he has pleaded not guilty. Authorities say they haven’t determined a motive in the attack but have said they are investigating whether the incident was motivated by hate.
Eaton is accused of shooting the three students as they walked in front of his apartment building Saturday night having a conversation in Arabic and English, according to Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad. Two of the men were also wearing traditional Palestinian scarves known as keffiyehs at the time of the attack, he said.
‘One casualty in this much-wider conflict’
In a text from Awartani, read aloud by a Brown University professor Monday night during a vigil for the three students, the young man said: “Who knew that all I had to do to become famous was to get shot?”
Beshara Doumani, a professor of Palestinian Studies, jested that those who knew Awartani would have expected that opening line.
“On a more serious note, it’s important to recognize that this is part of the larger story,” said Doumani, reading from Awartani’s statement.
“This hideous crime did not happen in a vacuum. I, meaning Hisham speaking, said about a month ago that Palestinians cannot afford to hold vigils every time this happens,” the statement continued. “As much as I appreciate and love every single one of you here today, I am but one casualty in this much-wider conflict.”
Awartani went on to allege in his statement, had he been shot in the West Bank, “the medical services which saved my life here would likely have been withheld by the Israeli army. The soldier who would’ve shot me would go home and never be convicted.” The lines were met with boos and shouts of “shame” from students in attendance.
Israel has accused terrorists of using emergency vehicles to smuggle people or weapons out of the occupied territories.
“I understand that the pain is so much more real and immediate because many of you know me. But any attack like this is horrific. Be it here or in Palestine. This is why when you send your wishes and light your candles for me today; your mind should not just be focused on me as an individual but rather as a proud member of a people being oppressed,” Doumani read, concluding Awartani’s statement.
The professor said the 20-year-old “will continue the struggle and all Palestinians will continue the struggle until they can live in freedom and dignity and equality,” leading to cheers from the crowd.
The victims’ families and several civil rights groups have called on investigators to treat the case as a hate crime, as the attack comes amid a reported rise in anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias incidents in the United States since the war between Israel and Hamas ignited last month.
But police and prosecutors said Monday that they have yet to uncover sufficient evidence to establish Eaton’s motive.
“This absolutely was a hateful act,” Murad told CNN Monday. “But whether or not we can cross the legal threshold in order to determine that it is a hate crime is a different matter.”
The victims’ families called for “full justice and accountability” in a joint statement Monday.
“We believe a full investigation is likely to show our sons were targeted and violently attacked simply for being Palestinian,” the families’ statement said. “Our children, Palestinian children, like everyone else, deserve to feel safe.”
Mayor Miro Weinberger in a statement called for support for the city’s Palestinian, Muslim and Arab residents. He invited residents to attend a candlelight vigil Tuesday evening.
“The terrible, unprovoked attack of three young visitors to Burlington was a shocking violation of the values of this welcoming and inclusive community,” he said.
“We cannot let the terrible actions of one man define this vibrant and diverse place.”
Victim recalls believing the shooter was going to kill him, family says
The two other victims have been identified by family representatives as Kinnan Abdalhamid, a student at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, and Tahseen Ali Ahmad, a student at Trinity College in Connecticut.
In addition to Awartani’s life-altering spinal injury, the two other men were shot in the upper torso and lower extremities and hospitalized in the ICU, according to police. One of the victims was released from the hospital Monday, a source close to the victims’ families told CNN.
Abdalhamid’s parents said in a statement Tuesday evening they are “extremely relieved” he was released from the hospital but “know that this tragedy will shape the rest of our lives.”
“Kinnan told us that he was afraid to leave the hospital,” they said. “Our child may be physically well enough to be out of the hospital, but he is still shaken from this horrific attack.”
“We are extremely proud of our son. In the face of hate, he has exhibited courage and strength. No child should have to endure this pain. As parents, our primary focus is our son’s health, safety, and future.”
The students were visiting Burlington for the Thanksgiving holiday and were staying with Awartani’s uncle, Rich Price, the uncle told CNN. They had attended a birthday party for the uncle’s 8-year-old twin sons just hours before they were attacked, he said.
“We had just come back from the birthday party, and they decided to take a stroll around the block to get some fresh air,” Rich Price said. “They were just walking, talking amongst themselves. They were wearing their keffiyehs, which are traditional Palestinian scarves, and this gentleman stepped out of the dark, pulled out a handgun and fired four times.”
Awartani told his mother he “suddenly found himself on the ground” when the shooting began, she said.
Awartani recalled one of his friends “screaming with pain” from a chest wound, Elizabeth Price said. The third victim, who thought his friends had been killed, tried to escape to get help, she said.
The shooter hovered over them for a short time and Awartani thought he would “continue to shoot them and kill them,” the mother said. Once the shooter fled, Awartani was able to call 911.
Rich Price noted the three students grew up in Ramallah before coming to the US for college. “They grew up under military occupation and who would imagine that they would come to a place like this to celebrate Thanksgiving and this is when their lives would be at risk.”
“It was a shock to us that this would happen, and Burlington is a quiet place,” Elizabeth Price said Tuesday.
“When you have a gun, and when you act on something, it can have lethal consequences, or in the case of these children, life-changing consequences,” she said.
Electronic evidence may shed light on motive, police say
A search of Eaton’s apartment, which is next to the scene of the shooting, uncovered a pistol and ammunition that were connected to bullet casings found at the scene, according to Murad, the police chief.
But while investigators say they have found enough evidence to connect Eaton to the attack, they are still searching for a motive.
A trove of electronic devices seized from the Eaton’s apartment may offer some insight, and police plan to work with the FBI to analyze the devices, Murad said on CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront Monday night. During their search, authorities found five cell phones, an iPad and a backpack full of hard drives, according to an affidavit.
“Are there writings, are there social media or email histories that are indicative of a thought pattern that would lead us to a motive, particularly one that is directed at a group of people?” said Murad, detailing what investigators will look for.
Federal prosecutors in Vermont are also investigating whether the shooting may have been a hate crime, officials said.
After Eaton’s arraignment on Monday, his attorney, Margaret Jansch, said it was “premature to speculate” about a possible hate crime motivation.
Eaton showed no emotion when police told him what charges he faced, Murad said. “He was affectless in his response in a way that was certainly notable to detectives.”
Robert Sand, a former prosecutor and professor at Vermont Law School, said, “For offenses such as attempted murder that have a maximum penalty of five years or more, the hate crime enhancement does not raise the maximum possible sentence, but the hate motivation becomes a relevant factor at sentencing.”
Proving “hate motivation” expands the prosecution’s burden, Sand said via email Tuesday. The prosecution would not only need to prove the elements of the underlying crime – in this case, attempted murder – but also prove the motivation for the crime.
Sand said a prosecutor in Vermont could elect not to charge a hate crime since attempted murder “already contains the possibility of a life sentence and there might be strategic reasons not to overly complicate the evidence for the jury.”
That there are multiple victims, Sand said, is already considered an “aggravating factor” at sentencing.
“I suppose a prosecutor could also elect not to charge the ‘Hate Motivation’ aspect and then present evidence at a sentencing hearing of the motivation to seek a greater sentence within the range allowed by law,” he added.
This story has been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Ray Sanchez, Kaitlan Collins, Laura Coates, Rob Frehse, Polo Sandoval, Celina Tebor, Khalil Abdallah, Laura Dolan and Mark Morales contributed to this report.
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