They all asked for mercy, but in the end, seven Wando High School students will go to prison. For how long depends on them.
Sentenced Tuesday for their role in the armed robbery of a Food Lion grocery store were Christopher Cousins, Graham Stolte, Jackie Washington, Michael Dawley, Vincent Weiner, Max Hartwell and Patrick Brown.
All were sentenced according to the Youthful Offender Act. Under the act, sentences can stretch to six years, depending on the crime and the offender's behavior in prison.
The defendants also received the option to apply for the Shock Incarceration Program, which is an intensive boot camp-style program that could shorten their sentences. The program lasts between 90 and 120 days.
If they do not qualify for the Shock program, they likely will serve between 12 to 18 months if they are well-behaved, defense attorneys said. They will serve their time in a facility that houses 16- to 25-year-old offenders.
The first six to be sentenced pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit armed robbery and accessory after the fact of armed robbery, which carry sentences of up to five years and 15 years, respectively. Brown pleaded only to the latter charge.
The defendants were between 16 and 18 years
old at the time of their arrests and were charged as adults.
A final defendant, Sam Perez, has yet to be sentenced by another judge. That date has not been set.
Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson recommended the Youthful Offender Act, but without the option of Shock Incarceration Program, for the six defendants facing two felonies. The judge gave Brown the sentence Wilson recommended.
During Brown's afternoon sentencing, Wilson outlined three levels of culpability for those involved in the Aug. 26, 2006, holdup. The highest level went to the lead culprits, Michael Anthony, 19, and Sean Shevlino, 17, both of whom were sentenced to 10 years in January.
The six defendants sentenced Tuesday morning were second highest, planning the holdup and serving as lookouts. And Brown's involvement was the least culpable, Wilson argued, as he found himself in the car on the way there and took $10 after the robbery.
Ninth Circuit Judge Roger Young asked Brown if he called the police or ran away when he learned what was happening. Brown replied, "No."
Young encouraged Brown that if he successfully completed the military-style program, he could be home by January. "Sometimes the first time you step across the line, you step across in a big-time way," Young said.
Supporters for the first six defendants filled the courtroom and jury box. At one point, Young halted the proceedings because he could see teenagers outside the courtroom standing on benches.
Lawyers representing the defendants brought forward family members, counselors, coaches and church leaders to speak on their behalf.
Several defendants stated their disbelief that Shevlino would go through with the planned robbery. All apologized to their families and the community.
Four of the seven sentenced — Cousins, Dawley, Hartwell and Weiner — had brushes with the police during the two-year period, with their names appearing in incident reports for underage drinking. None were arrested. Perez, the remaining defendant to be sentenced, was cited July 1 for hosting a party with underage drinking.
"I have great concern for someone who is out on bond for armed robbery continuing to party while underage," Wilson said.
Young laid out his logic for his decision at length, noting that to some it will appear lenient and to others, harsh. The perception that the defendants are all from privileged backgrounds is misguided, Young said. One family lost their home due to debt following their son's arrest.
In his rationale, Young balanced the immaturity of youth with the seriousness of the crime. "You didn't hold the gun, but you did something really wrong," he said.
Youthful Offender Act
The Youthful Offender Act is for offenders ages 17 to 24 and carries a sentence of up six years. The sentence is served within the S.C. Department of Corrections, and the offender may be conditionally released within the six years, based on offense category and an evaluation.
The court may also order an offender to complete the Shock Incarceration Program, a strict military boot camp-style program that lasts 90 to 120 days. Offenders must apply for the program and can be denied by the Corrections Department for medical reasons or attitude. If denied, offenders return to the normal Youthful Offender Act sentence.
Offenders will be subject to Youthful Offender Act parole for up to six years following their sentence. Approximately 150 offenders are released under the supervision of S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services each month.