« Another round of news and notes from the front lines of the debate over the FIRST STEP Act | Main | "The process to pardon turkeys is more rational than the one used for humans" »

November 19, 2018

Wondering about plea deals and departure authority in Washington after sentencing in awful rape and manslaughter case

Debates about federal sentencing and judicial discretion have long included district judges lamenting having to impose unduly severe sentences under federal statutory mandatory minimums (or under the federal sentencing guidelines before Booker made them advisory).  But this stunning story out of Washington, headlined "Man who raped dying Everett teen gets less than 3 years," reports on a state sentencing judge lamenting having to impose what seems like an unduly lenient sentence under state sentencing guidelines. Here are the details:

Alyssa Noceda was still growing up when she died. The young man who watched her overdose, Brian Varela, will serve less than three years in prison for giving her drugs, raping her and joking about her lifeless body over texts with friends.

Superior Court Judge Linda Krese said Thursday she was bound by law to sentence Varela to 2 years and 10 months.  It’s the most time allowed under state guidelines for second-degree manslaughter, third-degree rape and unlawful disposal of human remains, for someone with no prior record.

Krese was “surprised, even outraged,” by the inadequacy of the sentence. She has seen auto theft cases with more serious penalties.  “I’m not sure the Legislature really contemplated something like this,” Krese said.

Noceda had just turned 18.... Varela, 20, told detectives Noceda came to a party in February at a mobile home near Martha Lake. In Varela’s room, she snorted crushed pills and he offered her a dab of concentrated THC.  She collapsed within a minute of mixing the two, according to Varela’s story. He told police the pills were Percocet.  Tests later showed she’d taken a fatal mix of fentanyl and alprazolam, a generic name for Xanax.  Varela did not call for help.  Instead he texted pictures of Noceda’s partly nude body to coworkers, with comments like, “LOL.”

“Bro you killed her,” one friend said. “But not joking she od bruh,” Varela wrote.  He didn’t care, he added, because he was sexually assaulting her “to pass the time.”...

Varela played an online game until he fell asleep, according to charging papers. He woke up the next morning, he told police, to find Noceda’s lips blue.  She was cold to the touch.  Again, he didn’t call for help.

He went to work at Dairy Queen.  Once he returned, he stuffed the body in a plastic crate. He kept her hidden for days.  He used the thumbprint of Noceda’s hand to hack into her iPhone, to make a post on Snapchat suggesting that she ran away.  He washed her body to try to destroy evidence.  He told friends he planned to bury her near Marysville, then flee to Mexico.  One coworker called police....

Deputy prosecutor Toni Montgomery reached a plea agreement in September. “His complete disregard for the value in her life, and the way he treated her body and what he did with it — 34 months is really the only sentence that would be appropriate, given the current sentencing structure,” Montgomery said in court.

Noceda’s mother [Gina Pierson] and aunt cried when they learned the likely sentence....  In a packed courtroom Thursday, friends and family wore matching black hoodies with Justice-4-Alyssa printed across the back.  The front showed Noceda, with angel wings sprouting from her shoulders.  One by one for about a half-hour, Noceda’s loved ones stood in front of the judge and called Varela a monster and a murderer.

When it was Varela’s turn in court, he spoke two sentences. “I’m sorry for my foolish actions,” he said. “Whatever I get is what I deserve.”

In an interview before the hearing, Pierson said state laws need to change so other families don’t suffer like hers.  She struggled to explain her feelings toward the defendant. She has tried to forgive him, she said.

I can fully understand why the mother of the victim here thinks "state laws need to change," but I do not understand why existing Washington law could not have allowed for a more serious sanction in this horrible case.  For starters, the facts as presented here would arguably fit a charge of Rape in the Second Degree under Washington law ("victim is incapable of consent by reason of being physically helpless"), which is a much more serious offense likely to carry a much more serious sanction. 

Even without a conviction of a higher charge, the manslaughter and rape charges here carry statutory maximum sentences of 10 and 5 years.  For a first offender, it seems, the applicable sentencing guidelines provide for a much lower maximum sentence, but Washington law provides a lengthy list of aggravating circumstances that can allow for a departure above the standard sentencing range.  Any number of possible aggravating circumstances seem readily provable here: e.g., the first two listed are "defendant's conduct during the commission of the current offense manifested deliberate cruelty to the victim" and "defendant knew or should have known that the victim of the current offense was particularly vulnerable or incapable of resistance" and other potential aggravators include the "offense involved an invasion of the victim's privacy" and the "defendant demonstrated or displayed an egregious lack of remorse."

Because a number of aggravating circumstances seem to fir this case, I am not sure the sentencing judge here was correct when saying "I’m not sure the Legislature really contemplated something like this."  Rather, as I see it, the Washington legislature expressly provided a means for judges to go above the applicable sentencing range if and when prosecutors pursue and prove one of these aggravating factors  Perhaps someone who know the work-a-day realities of Washington sentencing law and practice can help me better understand what seems to have gone wrong here.

November 19, 2018 at 07:55 PM | Permalink

Comments

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB