June 24, 2024 / Modified jun 24, 2024 7:45 p.m.

Former UA student sentenced to life for professor's murder, victim's family calls for gun reform

Murad Dervish will serve life in prison with an additional 14 years for other charges.

Thomas Meixner Memorial Flowers, candles and letters lay in front of the Harshbarger building sign following the murder of Professor Thomas Meixner on Wed. Oct. 5, 2022 at the University of Arizona. Meixner was killed by a former student on campus.
Paola Rodriguez/Arizona Public Media

Murad Dervish, who killed University of Arizona professor Thomas Meixner on campus in 2022, was sentenced to life in prison Monday afternoon. In May, a jury unanimously found the former graduate student guilty of six felony charges, including first-degree murder.

Against the advice of his attorneys, Dervish shared his sentiments about his actions, showing little emotion or remorse.

“I did every single thing that I could think of to do, to not have this happen,” Dervish said.

Dervish was enrolled in the Atmospheric Sciences graduate program starting in the fall of 2021. After an aggressive confrontation with members of the Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences department regarding a test grade Dervish received and months of harassment, Dervish was eventually fired as a graduate teaching assistant and banned from campus. Meixner was one of the victims who received threats from Dervish.

The former student called for another trial saying his attorneys made “significant errors.” One example of a mistake Dervish believes was made was the denial of a change of venue.

“This was a very serious crime that got huge press coverage,” he said. “This is completely unlike 99.999% of crimes.”

Dervish claimed that media reports said he committed the murder, which in his view would have influenced the jury, who was instructed to not watch the news during the trial.

“There is no murder until a trial takes place. Before a trial takes place, all there are allegations and charges….That was absolutely slanderous and gratuitous.”

There was no indication during or after the trial that there had been such issues with the jury.

When the trial began in May, one of the prosecuting attorneys made it clear that this was not a question of if he did it or not.

“This isn’t a case about whether or not the defendant was the one who pulled the trigger and shot and killed Professor Meixner,” prosecuting attorney Hayley Weigold said in May. “What it is about is the intentional killing of Professor Meixner and knowing right from wrong.”

Dervish will also be sentenced to an additional 14 years in prison for his other charges including aggravated assault, burglary, possession of a deadly weapon by a prohibited possessor, and endangerment. The sentences will be served consecutively.

His attorney called for a guilty except insane verdict on second-degree murder charges. However, after two hours of deliberation, the jury did not believe Dervish was insane, finding him guilty of first-degree murder. Throughout the trial, there were conflicting expert testimonies about whether Dervish had a number of mental illnesses including autism and schizoaffective disorder.

Meixner’s family including his sons Sean and Brendan, sisters Anne, Joan, and Margaret as well as his widow, Kathleen, gave impact statements to Judge Howard Fell all asking for life without parole.

However, Sean shared that if it were him, Dervish would receive the death penalty.

“My father would not want Murad Dervish to be killed,” Sean said. “He was against it but I do because it's not about what my father would have wanted. It's about what he deserves, and what Mr. Dervish deserves, and Murad Dervish deserves nothing good this life has to offer.”

Since the shooting, Sean said that he feels like he has been robbed of experiencing a life where his father would see him grow and eventually build his own family.

“My world has not and will never be the same since October 5th. I've learned that there is a significant difference between wanting to live and simply not wanting to die,” Sean said. “Often it feels as though I'm waiting to die just so I can hold my father again and be free of the agony of living in his absence.”

Others, like some of Tom’s sisters, used their statements to call for stricter gun regulations and better accountability from the university.

UA’s role, Red Flag Laws

Tom’s sister Margaret Meixner said that UA failed her brother.

“He loved and trusted U of A, but that trust was misplaced,” Margaret said. “The police department at U of A were incompetent in how they handled this very serious situation, and arrogant not to acknowledge their role in this tragedy. The U of A, and especially its police department has my brother's blood on their hands.”

She contends that UA is only now making changes to its safety measures due to a lawsuit from Tom’s widow, Kathleen. In January, UA along with the Arizona Board of Regents reached a $2.5 million settlement with Tom’s family after two reports showed that UA had a fractured risk management system that led to the professor’s death.

During Monday’s sentencing, Celina Ramirez, the UA's vice president of initiatives and policy, said “the loss of Thomas Meixner has had an immense, immeasurable impact on the University of Arizona.”

“The department and the entire university community continue to grieve for the loss of this incredible, inspiring person,” Ramirez said during sentencing. “The trauma experienced by those who knew Dr. Meixner, and the entire community at large, cannot be overstated…No legal punishment could ever be enough to fully atone for the intense grief and pain the defendant has inflicted upon Dr. Meixner’s family, friends, colleagues, students, and the university community.”

“Everyone seems to think it won't happen to me or my family,” Margaret said. “It's really just a matter of time before it touches you. We all need to demand better gun regulations that reward and support responsible gun ownership and that prevents criminals and murderers from getting these deadly weapons.”

Tom’s widow Kathleen now wishes for more comprehensive gun reform in Arizona.

“My family deserved better, and the next family deserves better,” she said. “We need a Red Flag law now.”

Kathleen called for enhanced training of employees at UAPD, the Tucson Police Department, the Pima County Attorney’s Office, and the Constable’s office. She also implored gun owners who intend to sell weapons to ask questions of buyers and insist on background checks.

Live like Tom

In an interview with AZPM following the sentencing, Kathleen detailed many of the memories she shared with Tom throughout her life.

She said some of the things on Tom’s to-do list included: riding your bike on the way home to visit your son's work, talking with your neighbors, singing goofy original songs, breaking out and dance, participating in service opportunities at church, work, and in the community and so much more.

In the year and a half since his murder, many colleagues, former students, family, and friends from around the world recalled Tom’s impact on their lives. There was no question about whether he was loved, but rather how he found the time to do it all. Kathleen says his secret was to take power naps anytime and anywhere.

“I really think his experience being a four-time cancer survivor had created in him a life philosophy of I am going to take advantage of this day in the most joyful way possible,” she said. “It's living as if you don't know how much time you have left.”

She, along with the rest of her family, still finds Tom in the everyday movements of life, including as recent as this season’s first monsoon that occurred just days before the sentencing. Tom was best known for dedicating his life to trying to save the world’s most precious resource–water.

“Thank you Tom for this profound reminder that you're with us because the night he died, we had a huge, unbelievable storm that night.”

During church the Sunday before Monday’s sentence, Kathleen said that the reading was about Jesus calming the storm.

“We just want some calm and some peace. We want to know that he's safe, and I want to know that my kids are going to make it through.”

As Kathleen moves forward in this next stage of life taking on advocacy roles she never expected to, she finds herself trying her best to “live like Tom.” In particular, she recalled a statement he made to a colleague the day of his death as the community members of the Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences Department mourned the death of a student earlier that day.

“Irma asked him how Tom was holding up as he was going to be helping to officiate. Tom's response was, ‘Sometimes you have to do the things you don't want to do. But you do it because you have to be strong for the people around you that you care about.’ These words characterize who Tom was–a man of compassion and action to support others.”

“If I could do or say anything that would prevent someone else from experiencing what we've experienced, I'm all in,” Kathleen said. “If I could do or say anything to uplift Tom's department and to help them thrive, I'm all in.”

For those wanting to memorialize Tom’s memory, Kathleen says the best way is to connect in the community.

“That's where we learn new perspectives, and that's how he considered different perspectives in his life, whether it was academic or political, in different ways…Tom's life was made better by it, and I think he also made other lives better through that.”

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