In the end, it makes little difference that Joey Hamlin was convicted of manslaughter in the second degree rather than the first-degree charge prosecutors hoped for.
Either way Travis “T.J.” Frazier is just as dead as he was on Feb. 21, 1996, when 16-year-old Hamlin pointed what he thought was an unloaded handgun at his friend’s head and stupidly squeezed the trigger.
On Thursday, Spokane County Juvenile Court Judge Neal Reilly culminated a daylong trial by ruling that Hamlin’s act was criminally negligent, but not quite reckless. Those are the legal standards separating second from the more serious first-degree manslaughter.
But from watching the proceeding, I’ll wager it will take a good deal more than a manslaughter trial to knock sense into Hamlin, his disrespectful pals and a couple of the mollycoddling adults who accompanied them into court.
This dysfunctional bunch was better suited to a Jerry Springer show than a solemn judicial procedure.
They chuckled and chatted as if they had come to a picnic. Their defiant behavior was in rude contrast to the other side of the aisle, where T.J.’s parents and sisters sat red-eyed and angry, sometimes sobbing into wads of tissue.
Hamlin could be the poster boy for remorseless punks. He came to court with his head shaved into a buzz cut and wearing baggy “gangsta” clothes.
During breaks he sneered and smirked and swaggered off for a cigarette with a similarly dressed pal.
Imagine being 16 and believing you’re that tough. One can only imagine the rutted road that lies ahead for this troubled boy.
At one point his witness friend, Sam Kruger, 15, focused a set of flinty eyes on me and told me I was full of excrement. Except he didn’t use that word. He apparently didn’t appreciate an earlier column I wrote on the T.J. affair.
Kruger later apologized, but only after someone he was sitting with advised him, perhaps, of the folly of talking trash to a guy taking notes.
How heartbreaking to see kids so young yet so far gone. Kids who don’t display a shred of sympathy. Kids who haven’t a clue that their irresponsible actions have irreversible consequences.
Where were the adult role models before these kids got so lost? Maybe it’s time we started locking up parents who so tragically drop the ball.
Hamlin didn’t do what he did by accident.
After shooting his good buddy, he had the diabolical savvy to stick the clip back in the semiautomatic. He wiped the gun off with a towel and dropped it on T.J.’s lifeless palm.
Police investigators lost valuable time thinking they were dealing with a suicide. That’s why T.J.’s death never made the newspaper and took so long to solve.
Hamlin lied repeatedly to a detective about his involvement in T.J.’s death. The boy was finally arrested 18 months later, only after Kruger’s sister told her counselor what had happened on that awful winter Wednesday almost two years ago.
Hamlin and Kruger skipped school that day. They were looking to get high as they carried a bag of marijuana over to T.J.’s house in Otis Orchards.
T.J. was nobody’s angel. He was only too happy to show Hamlin and Kruger the new handgun he’d bought, supposedly to protect him from some older thugs.
Again, where were the parents?
Hamlin picked up the weapon and brandished it around the room. T.J., they swear, had taken the clip out and told them it was unloaded.
According to Kruger, T.J. was rolling a joint when Hamlin pointed the pistol at his head and asked if he could pull the trigger. T.J. supposedly said yes and was shot dead.
For this, Hamlin, who also has burglary and theft convictions on his record, will get up to 12 months probation, some community service and maybe 30 days detention. It doesn’t mean much. He’s already served more time than this.
Bill Reeves, who prosecuted the case, says he will ask for an exceptional sentence. But a few more days won’t teach this tough guy anything.
It sure won’t bring T.J. back.