The former Freeman High School student who killed one of his classmates and injured three others should have a chance to live a meaningful life after he gets out of prison, his defense attorney argued Thursday.
Prosecutors, however, argued the 20-year-old should serve more time behind bars to pay for the damage he did to the community.
Sentencing hearings for Caleb Sharpe began Thursday morning and are expected to continue through next week.
Sharpe was 15 when on Sept. 13, 2017, he entered Freeman High School with multiple weapons and opened fire on his classmates. He killed Sam Strahan, wounded three girls and traumatized dozens of others.
Early this year, Sharpe pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, three counts of attempted murder and one count of assault.
More than 200 Freeman community members shared how the shooting impacted them in weeks of testimony earlier this year.
On Thursday, attorneys made their opening arguments on what Sharpe’s sentence should be to Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price.
Strahan’s mother, Ami Strahan, sat in the front row surrounded by fellow Freeman families, watching the proceedings with a white ribbon pinned to her chest.
Sharpe’s parents and a handful of family members sat directly behind him.
Public defender Brooke Foley argued that he should serve a 20-year fixed sentence due in part to his immaturity and untreated mental illness at the time of the shooting.
The Washington State Supreme Court has acknowledged that youth must be considered and that young people’s brains aren’t fully developed, Foley noted.
Sharpe had severe depression with psychotic features and untreated ADHD at the time of the shooting, Foley said. There had been signs of Sharpe’s growing mental illness for years, she said.
A variety of circumstances contributed to his mental status, Foley argued. Those included moving away from his friends to Spokane Valley, spending more time alone as his parents grew busier, playing first-person shooter games, a breakup and an obsession with increasingly dark movies and documentaries.
Sharpe’s comments at the time about his desire to hurt others “go unreported, unnoticed,” Foley said.
In a school assignment shortly before the shooting, Sharpe listed his prized possession as a gun, she said.
None of Sharpe’s concerning behavior was reported until he passed notes to two girls who thought he might be suicidal; he then saw a school counselor, Foley said.
All of those signs of failing mental health, along with Sharpe’s immaturity, should be considered as mitigating factors and reduce his sentence, Foley said. Since being incarcerated, Sharpe’s ADHD has been treated and his brain has matured, showing signs he could be rehabilitated, she said.
“There’s no one here that disputes how horrible that day was,” Foley said.
Sharpe has taken responsibility for his actions and is remorseful, Foley said, noting he pleaded guilty earlier this year and didn’t object to extensive victim impact statements.
Deputy Prosecutor Sharon Hedlund acknowledged that Sharpe’s youth should be a mitigating factor but requested a 35-year sentence, with the requirement that before his release, a sentencing review board consider Sharpe’s likelihood to reoffend and whether he has been rehabilitated.
Foley’s description of Sharpe as a moody, self-conscious and struggling isn’t abnormal, Hedlund argued.
“She’s describing a fairly typical teenage boy,” Hedlund said.
The prosecution’s experts agree that Sharpe was “slightly immature for his age,” but Hedlund argued that his immaturity and struggles weren’t cause for him to shoot his classmates.
Sharpe’s age and immaturity should be a mitigating factor, Hedlund said in agreement with the defense. She said, however, 35 years is a mitigated sentenced compared to the 90 years Sharpe could face in a standard sentence as adult.
When it comes to rehabilitation, there aren’t many cases of school shooters who have been released to compare their recidivism rate, Hedlund said. Most school shooters either die during or shortly after the incident, or are still incarcerated, she said.
Hedlund argued the 35-year sentence with a requirement for a review would “provide some assurance of safety for the community.”
She also argued that Sharpe hasn’t shown true remorse for what he did, and the court still doesn’t have a “true understanding” of why he shot his classmates.
Over the next week, both attorneys will call experts, including psychologists who examined Sharpe, along with detectives and family members to testify.
The first of those experts, Dr. Richard Adler, testified that via neuroimaging shortly after the shooting, he found Sharpe’s brain was immature for his age but has since improved, showing potential to be rehabilitated.
Adler testified that it was a combination of Sharpe’s undiagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder, ADHD, immaturity and access to guns and other factors that caused him to commit the shooting.
The school counselor who evaluated Sharpe after the note was reported to administration should have noticed the way Sharpe talked about being interested in violence, Adler said. Acting like characters he was watching on TV and his interest in weapons should have been a sign he could act out violently, he said.
“If you work with young people, you should hear this and know this is not right,” Adler said.
With Sharpe’s current brain maturation and continuing growth, along with consistent treatment for his mental illness, Adler said he feels Sharpe is at a low risk of reoffending.
More experts, along with Sharpe’s and Strahan’s families, are expected to testify over the next week. Price is expected to hand down his sentence by the end of next week.
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