Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill sentenced Colton Harris-Moore (aka The Barefoot Bandit) to seven years and change on Friday afternoon, at about 3:30. The hearing covered the basic details of his life and crimes. The sentence is in middle of the allowable range. The day’s drama engaged me mightly.
Why is it important that Colton Harris-Moore received a sentence in the middle, and not the top of the allowable range?
“This has big ramifications for Colton as he enters the prison system,” attorney John Henry Browne told reporters on the sidewalk yesterday after the sentencing. “It will affect what kind of prison he’s in, who he associates with, and lots of other things all the way down the line.” Browne towers at 6’5” or so, sports longish hair, and does not disappoint as a court room presence. He enters and exits the building wearing a long black overcoat, with red silk scarf that reaches nearly to his knees, followed by a small entourage. He has a son Colton’s age. He rules the court room with his experience, intelligence, relaxed style and a surprising dose of humility.
Had Colton received a sentence at the top of the range, the system would see him as a scumbag career-criminal and a threat to society, which was the goal of Island County Prosecutor Greg Banks and San Juan County Prosecutor Randall K. Gaylord. These two prosecutors began the day with pleas for the harshest sentence. Actually, Banks made a plea and Gaylord basically whined about it.
In his presentation, Gaylord identified an Orcas Island victim (who wasn’t present) as a “prominent person, a school board member, and the head of a Christian school.” Then he repeated the word “prominent” about three times. Huh? I had to ask the person seated next to me, “What does prominent have to do with it?” I’m still dumfounded and outraged that the prosecutor argued that the “prominence” of the victim requires a harsher sentence. Maybe that thinking flies in San Juan County, a well-known destination for prominent people, and also the county with the highest per capita income in Washington State.
Colton liked to “occupy” airplanes. OK, he stole ‘em and crashed ‘em. As a kid he didn’t have any fun, but flying was a mixed experience for him. More than once he thought he was going to die. He left the cockpit trashed with vomit after flying over the Cascades and crash landing on the Yakima reservation.
Normally a bastion of reason, Island County prosecutor Greg Banks got a little sideways yesterday in his impassioned opening remarks. Looking at the media in the jury box, he told the judge, “Tomorrow I want to see headlines around the world that say, “Barefoot Bandit Gets Ten Years.” The media people just stared at him, or kept taking photos of Colton and his lawyer.
At that point, I asked myself, “What is Greg thinking?” For one thing, why does the prosecutor even have to call him the “Barefoot Bandit?” Colton’s a person with a name, he’s not an actor or a running-back. He doesn’t seek notoriety. I think Mr. Banks even asked himself what he was thinking, because later in the afternoon, when the Judge allowed some last remarks, Banks pointedly clarified that he didn’t actually WANT that headline. He just knew it would be there if the sentence were imposed. He only wants the world to know that you can’t pull this kind of plane-stealing-home-robbing crap in Island and San Juan Counties and get away with it (I’m sure the “world” already knows that, and Colton isn’t getting away with it anyway.)
Two victims addressed the court in the morning—a storeowner from Orcas Island, and a homeowner from Granite Falls. San Juan Prosecutor Gaylord spoke for a third victim, the “prominent” Orcas Island man. The man from Granite Falls spoke convincingly of his family’s loss of personal security after Colton robbed their home.
During a break, in the foyer, I sat on a bench and visited with Colton’s aunt Sandi Putnam from Arlington and uncle Ed Coaker from Lynnwood. They had reserved seats, from Browne’s office. They’re estranged from their sister, Colton’s mother Pam Kohler, who didn’t get a reserved seat. They came to support their nephew. As we talked, Ed noticed Robert Gleyre across the way–the victim from Granite Falls who spoke earlier.
“I feel like I want to apologize to him, even though I didn’t do anything,” Ed said to me. Ed is slightly built and gray, older than me, a little crusty, but humble in manner.
“Go for it,” I offered. “It’d be a better world if more people spoke up.”
“I think I will,” he said and then rose from the bench and walked toward Mr. Gleyre.
A few minutes later, as we filed back into the court room, I asked Ed, “How’d that go?”
“Real good,” he said. That was a turning point in the day for me.
The prosecution argued vociferously that Colton “crossed the line” from wayward teenage vandal to conniving, sophisticated and dangerous criminal when he successfully stole some Orcas Island identities, acquired bogus credit cards, and ordered flight-training materials which were mailed to phony addresses. He also took a .22 gun from the Granite Falls home.
The defense put Harvard-trained psychiatrist Richard S. Adler on the stand. He testified that Colton demonstrates the symptoms of fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and post-traumatic stress due to a brutal childhood with his mother Pam Kohler. This is widely documented in public records. Attorney Browne carefully elicited the science and conclusions from Dr. Adler in an effort to demonstrate that Colton’s crimes resulted from physical and mental conditions over which he had no control. In fact, his mother’s alcoholism affected him in utero, according to Adler. He noted that Colton lacks the characteristic facial formations apparent in cases of FAS, but he suffers from a range of symptoms nonetheless. I listened carefully to this detailed analysis and explanation of Colton’s behaviors. He tends toward impulsiveness and bad judgment.
After his testimony, I spoke for several minutes with Dr. Adler, who is a senior fellow in forensic psychiatry at the University of Washington School of Medicine. I shared my story about Ed Coaker’s apology to the victim Robert Gleyre.
“That’s healing,” Adler responded. I then shared my frustration with the ubiquitous references to the “Barefoot Bandit,” and that I hoped Colton would get the support he needs in prison. “He will get it,” Dr. Adler assured me. “This is just about people,” he added. We both returned to the court room for the denouement.
Judge Churchill sat stone-faced and said little during the day. She had to read the lengthy charges against Colton and ask for his plea. I noticed her focus on Dr. Adler during his testimony, perhaps more than on the rhetoric of the lawyers. The medical/scholarly exchange between Dr. Adler and John Henry Browne contrasted with the lawyer-business-as-usual that preceded. Watching the judge, I asked myself: Has John Henry Browne just pushed back the tide that’s drowning Colton Harris-Moore?
When all the talk ended, and sheaths of last-minute paperwork flew between defense and prosecution tables, the attorneys crossing all the t’s and dotting all the i’s, especially about the restitution, the Judge calmly stated that she needed a few minutes to collect her thoughts. She recessed the court.
It was about 20 minutes before we returned. Maybe longer. People were nervous. Smartly-dressed Snohomish County detectives stood at the back of the court, or milled in the foyer. He’s committed crimes in their county too. Colton’s friends on the bench in front of me cried during the afternoon testimony about his sad life. It wasn’t easy hearing that his mother told him he’d be better off dead, and that he stole food to eat because there was none at home. How old was he then? Eight, nine, ten? What was puberty like for him? He sat 12 feet in front of us in the numbered orange jump suit, leather belt around his waist, wrists cuffed with rings and chains, his head almost always tilted down.
The door opened, the judge entered, we stood. She told us to sit. She began by saying that today Colton stared down just like he did five years ago when she heard his juvenile case. And then she spoke without hesitation for five or seven minutes.
She said that with his life story she would expect to find the worst criminal person…..drugs, murder, horrific crimes. But, she said, Colton never intended violence toward anyone, and he doesn’t drink or use drugs despite the fact that his life is characterized by a “mind-numbing absence of hope.” He is intent on making restitution, despite more personal exposure and public embarrassment (the movie).
She added, “This represents the triumph of the human spirit and the triumph of Colton Harris-Moore.” The judge acknowledged the merits of the mitigation argument, basically disagreeing with the rationale of the prosecution for a harsh sentence.
The tension now shifted palpably in the room with the hope for a reduced sentence. Judge Churchill imposed seven years and three months, not the ten-plus years requested by the prosecution. Questions remain about “time-served” (someone told me that’s been ruled out), and concurrent or consecutive sentences (concurrent appears probable, they say). And, he must finish his juvenile sentence and won’t start his new time until he’s 21. He’s 20 now. And finally, he’ll face a federal judge in Seattle in January for sentencing in those cases.
I’m left feeling that the legal system came down hard on Colton not just because of his many crimes, but also because he evaded the police for years, embarrassing them; because his victims included some affluent (prominent) people; and because his pitiful life is a societal embarrassment. Where was the system when he was seven years old? How can you fall through the cracks on Camano Island? Is there really anyone to blame besides his mother? What does blame accomplish anyway?
Postscript – Prosecutor Greg Banks, returning to his normal self, told the media afterwards that he can live with the sentence of seven years, three months. John Henry Browne, who defended Colton pro bono, reports that the burden of the case has almost bankrupted him. Pam Kohler, Colton’s mother, wants to “sue” and “ruin” John Henry Browne for poisoning her son against her. Colton, by all reports, will be relieved to be out of the spotlight, although not anytime soon. The media will move on to other stories. Oh yes, I almost forgot. I talked to Pam Kohler on the phone on the drive home after the hearing. She didn’t have anything new to say, except that when I told her some of Colt’s friends cried during the hearing, she said she cried too, listening at home.