Ami Strahan, the mother of slain Freeman High School sophomore Sam Strahan, faced upward with eyes pressed shut and took deep breaths Tuesday as she waited for the judge to enter the courtroom and announce whether her son’s accused killer, Caleb Sharpe, would stand trial as an adult.
After a thorough explanation of his rationale, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price ruled that Sharpe, 17, would stand trial as an adult. Strahan and several others let out muted gasps at the decision before leaving the courtroom under escort.
Price spoke at length about the hundreds of pages he reviewed. That material included expert opinions, police records, weeks of testimony and a video recording of the shooting of Sam Strahan on the second-floor hallway of Freeman High School.
“This is, undoubtedly, one of the most difficult decisions I’ve been required to make as a judge,” Price said. “To the Freeman community, I’m so very sorry for your loss. This event will haunt the Freeman community forever.”
He also extended condolences to Benjamin and Ericka Sharpe, who he said lost a child to the shooting as well.
“I wish there was a way for me to lessen your pain. It will always be there,” Price said. “But it’s not my job to do what the Freeman community … or what Mr. Sharpe wants me to do. It’s my job to follow the law. I am satisfied that … this matter should be declined to adult court for all further proceedings.”
In a decision nearly two years in the making, Price delivered his decision following a weeklong hearing where attorneys presented witnesses to bolster differing arguments about which court should hear Sharpe’s upcoming trial for first-degree murder stemming from the killing of 15-year-old Sam Strahan.
The slain sophomore was shot on Sept. 13, 2017, along with three other classmates, by a gunman who video shows brought an AR-15-style rifle into Freeman High School only to have the weapon jam. The shooter then pulled a handgun and started shooting.
Video surveillance and witnesses identified the shooter as Sharpe, who was 15 at the time. Within minutes of his arrest, Sharpe gave a detailed confession, saying he had planned the shooting for about two years, according to court testimony.
Defense attorney Bevan Maxey asked Price to keep the case in juvenile court based on Sharpe’s age and psychological and psychiatric testing that showed he had a maturity level of an 11- or 12-year-old with a learning disability.
After the ruling, Maxey said he plans to continue to defend Sharpe, who is scheduled to be arraigned in adult court on Aug. 16.
“Like I said in my closing, it’s just an extremely sad circumstance for everyone involved,” he said. “It’s apparent the judge spent a lot of time on his decision.”
Asked how his client reacted to the decision, Maxey said he would not divulge his conversations with him.
“He certainly feels all this,” Maxey said. “There is a significant amount of remorse.”
Throughout the weeklong hearing and again on Monday, Judge Price in his opinion and prosecutors both spoke of Sharpe committing the crime as if it was not in dispute, despite Sharpe’s constitutionally assured status of innocent until proved guilty.
“Ultimately, the determination of those facts will be up to a jury,” Maxey said. “There are allegations that remain in dispute.”
But the mountain of evidence against Sharpe is striking.
Witnesses identified him, school cameras captured the shooting and Sharpe himself told detectives not only that he carried out the shooting, but also how he planned it and executed it. A search of his home discovered a diagram of the second floor where the shooting took place under the heading “Wait Till School.”
If Price had kept the case in juvenile court and Sharpe was convicted, he would have been released at age 21 with no strings attached. He now faces up to life in prison based on the long list of charges, which include three counts of attempted first-degree murder for the three wounded girls and 51 counts of second-degree assault for all of the Freeman students who prosecutors argue were put at risk by the shooting.
Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell and Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor Kelly Fitzgerald both argued that just over three years would be far too short a sentence to match the devastation, fear and ongoing issues the shooting caused.
Price ultimately agreed.
“Of course all of this is frustrating if you are a victim or a family member waiting for this case to come to an end,” he said. But the investigation into the shooting “has been nothing less than stellar.”
Price noted that defense experts believe Sharpe suffered some medical event that caused brain damage and delay in brain development in areas of the brain that control executive function, problem solving and impulse control.
“I know that Mr. Sharpe planned this attack in great detail,” Price said.
That included figuring out a way to get “multiple weapons” inside the school, a ruse to make sure his bus driver allowed him to bring golf clubs in a bag that also included an AR-15-style rifle, and drawing maps of the hallway where “potentially hundreds of students would be gathering that day.”
“If not for what Mr. Haskell described as miraculous jamming of that weapon,” Price said, “we probably would have had dozens of victims.”
The video, which Price reviewed but was not shown in court, shows Sharpe calmly unloading weapons from a duffel bag and Sam Strahan approaching.
Strahan “was completely unaware of the threat he faced,” Price said. “When Mr. Sharpe shot Mr. Strahan in the abdomen, he did not stop and consider his actions. He shot him in the cheek. Then he fired at students gathered in the second-floor hallway. The shooting did not stop until he ran out of ammunition.”
Price noted that detectives found a yearbook with photos where someone wrote an “X” over some students’ faces and wrote the word “kill.” The day before the shooting, Sharpe told detectives that he flipped a coin.
“A coin toss to determine whether his Freeman classmates would live or die,” Price said. “I feel compelled to say how much this case has affected Spokane County and the Freeman community. Freeman will never be the same.”
Price then talked about the last two years as he served as a juvenile judge where his job was “to help kids find their way.”
“It is established science that adolescent brains don’t fully mature until the mid-20s,” he said. “This is precisely the reason why we have juvenile court and adult court. Adults know better. Children, for the most part, do not.”
But the school shooting was “aggressive, extraordinarily violent … and this was planned with militaristic precision,” he said.
Prior to the shooting, Sharpe had not faced discipline or committed any legal offenses.
“He was not on anybody’s radar,” Price said. “Even Mr. Sharpe’s parents and siblings were shocked. Nobody picked up on it. To the court, that shows maturity. He was acting to such a degree that everyone was shocked that the young man who carried this out was Caleb Sharpe.
“Who can tell the Freeman community that this wouldn’t happen again?” Price said. “I have considered this matter in great detail. What I saw shocked even me.”