A judge sent a teenage gang member to prison for as long as she could Wednesday, saying she will never understand why the boy fired a sawed-off shotgun at a crowd of youths last summer.
Nathan Witherspoon, 17, received a 27-year prison term - the maximum under sentencing guidelines. His attorney, Doug Boe, asked for a 13-year sentence, noting his client has never before been convicted of a felony.
“The reasons for what happened are still elusive to me,” Spokane County Superior Court Judge Kathleen O’Connor said. “All of it really defies any rational explanation.”
Three of the jurors who convicted Witherspoon Nov. 9 returned to the courtroom Wednesday “to support the strictest possible sentence,” said one who asked not to be identified.
They found Witherspoon guilty of first-degree assault for shooting 16-year-old Shelly Morgan in the face, and seven counts of second-degree assault for pointing the gun at others in a North Side parking lot last summer.
Morgan lost her left eye and had 16 shotgun pellets buried in her body. She underwent four surgeries, but the pellets couldn’t all be removed.
More than 30 of her fellow students at East Valley High School showed up at the sentencing, filling the rows of seats behind Morgan and her family.
The packed courtroom angered Witherspoon’s father. As people continued to file in, he accused the group of trying to “railroad” his son.
“He’s already been convicted,” Johnny Witherspoon Sr. said. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life.”
Relatives said Witherspoon didn’t start getting into trouble until early last year, when he moved out of his house and started hanging out with known gang members.
“He’s the product of an unstable home,” said William Graham, a pastor at the Community Church of Christ in Moses Lake. “He’s always been more of a follower than a leader.”
Graham told the judge how Witherspoon used to encourage his family to go to church. For a while, he used to work for free at a downtown thrift store that Graham owned with his wife.
“He came down and helped sort clothes and hang them up and stuff,” Graham said. “His mom would say, ‘The Rev. will pay you some money for that,’ but Nate knew better. He’d say, ‘Aw, ma, the Rev. don’t have no money.”’
While Graham spoke, Witherspoon cried silently at the defense table.
The defendant later apologized to Morgan, whom he knew before the shooting. He called what happened an accident.
“I truly am sorry,” Witherspoon said, reading from a written statement. “If I could give you my eye, I would. Because this shouldn’t have happened to you or anyone else.”
Morgan said she didn’t believe him.
“He meant to shoot me,” she said. “He just said all that to get a lighter sentence.”
Her mother, Robyn Morgan, said her family has been intimidated and harassed since Witherspoon’s trial. They’ve changed their telephone number twice, she said, but they still get about 30 hang-up calls each day.
“My daughter didn’t have a chance that night,” Robyn Morgan said. “She’s alive, but it wasn’t (Witherspoon’s) choice that she live.”
Deputy Prosecutor David Hearrean said Witherspoon went with two friends to the Northpointe Taco Bell, a popular teen hang-out, about 1:30 a.m. on July 8. Twenty people were gathered in the parking lot, including Morgan, who was sitting in the back seat of a friend’s car.
Cradling the shotgun, Witherspoon’s friends goaded him into shooting someone, Hearrean said. They chanted “Crips! Crips! Crip it up!” while he pointed the gun at the crowd. Witherspoon laughed while teenagers scrambled to hide, Hearrean said. One victim dove under a car and yelled for the driver not to run over him.
“He was laughing, grinning, enjoying his power,” Hearrean said. “He terrorized these people.”
Witherspoon’s friends, 20-year-old Sylvester Davis Jr. and 16-year-old Barry Joseph Gardner, pleaded guilty to seven counts of second-degree assault.
Last November, O’Connor sentenced each to eight years.
“That kind of conduct has got to be laid at the doorstep of the people who are responsible,” the judge said.
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