A Spokane judge Wednesday handed down the state’s stiffest drunken-driving sentence ever - 50 years in prison for a man who killed two people last Memorial Day weekend.
Superior Court Judge Thomas Merryman sentenced James B. Barstad for killing 14-year-old Julie Allen and 26-year-old Karen Sederholm when he raced through a red light and smashed into their cars near Gonzaga University.
Six weeks ago, a jury convicted the 31-year-old Barstad of two counts of first-degree murder.
That marked the first time in Washington a jury has convicted a drunken driver of murder due to “extreme indifference” instead of vehicular homicide, said Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Jim Sweetser.
In a tense courtroom full of victims’ family members Wednesday, Merryman told Barstad he felt compelled to hand down a harsh penalty. “The harshness in this sentence does not equal the harshness of the defendant’s behavior,” the judge said.
“The carnage that resulted (from your actions),” Merryman told Barstad, “was preventable, but it was almost inevitable” because of what had led up to the crash.
Refusing to call what happened an accident, Merryman cited the large amount of alcohol Barstad had drunk the afternoon of the crash, his angry outbursts at other drivers prior to the crash and his gunning the engine of his pickup truck when he saw the traffic light at Mission and Hamilton turn red.
Before the sentence, Barstad read from a prepared statement, telling the judge he had changed his life since the accident.
He hoped to prevent others from repeating his own mistakes if he received a moderate sentence.
Quoting Bible passages, Barstad said he feared becoming a victim himself of “those seeking revenge rather than justice.”
The judge’s only concession was not handing down the maximum penalties possible - life in prison under an exceptional sentence, or 56 years behind bars, the high end of what state law dictates for murder convictions.
“In effect, this (50-year sentence) means your freedom has been destroyed, just as the freedom of others has been destroyed by what happened,” Merryman said.
Linda Sederholm of Santa Maria, Calif., said the sentence served her need for justice and closure from the loss of her daughter.
State law allows for Barstad to earn parole for good behavior after serving 42 years.
“If there are parole hearings for him while I’m alive, I will try to be there to make sure he doesn’t get out,” Sederholm said.
The mother of victim Julie Allen, Elana Marshall, told Merryman before sentencing that she didn’t want a maximum penalty for the man who killed her daughter.
After the sentence, Marshall said she thought 50 years was appropriate, however. “My only hope is he takes the opportunity to change his life while in prison. What he got is about right,” she said.
Barstad’s attorney, Alan Rossi, sought a 20-year sentence, saying his client deserved a punishment equal to the crime.
“I’m very, very upset,” Rossi said afterward. Barstad has 30 days to file an appeal.
In addition to murder, Barstad was also convicted of two counts of vehicular assault, possession of marijuana and possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver.
Deputy Prosecutor Larry Steinmetz defended the decision to charge Barstad under the section of law that defines first-degree murder as “extreme indifference to human life.”
Most such crimes involve premeditated murder or killing committed during another serious crime, such as rape.
On the day of the crash, Barstad showed extreme indifference, said Steinmetz. “It’s a crime that requires unique circumstances, and which this case had,” he said.
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