ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - The State Court of Appeals has overturned the rejection of a plea deal for a man who pleaded guilty to murdering his girlfriend in 2014.
David Thomas, who strangled his girlfriend, Linda Bower, appealed the lower court’s decision to reject his plea deal for second degree murder after a judge rejected the sentence he agreed to.
The Court of Appeals found that Judge Kevin Saxby improperly imposed harsher conditions on discretionary parole than were allowed, by basing his decision on his thoughts on all domestic violence murders, rather than the specific facts of Thomas’s case.
Thomas turned himself in to authorities for killing Thomas. He told investigators he drank a large amount of vodka and took over-the-counter medication that night while the two were watching movies at his house. He said he remembered very little, other than strangling her, losing consciousness, then trying to resuscitate her before losing consciousness again.
According to the Appeals Court’s opinion, released Friday, Thomas agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder for a sentence of 75 years with 25 suspended. That agreed-upon sentence exceeds the general benchmark range of 20-30 years for a first felony offender convicted of second-degree murder. The minimum for the charge is 10 years; the maximum is 99.
Prosecutors characterized the sentence as the equivalent of a first-degree murder sentence imposed for a second-degree conviction.
Bower’s parents argued at the change of plea hearing that the sentence was too lenient, particularly that it did not restrict Thomas’s ability to apply for discretionary parole after serving one-third of his active sentence of 50 years, which would have come to 16 years, 8 months.
Judge Saxby conditionally accepted Thomas’s guilty plea, saying he wanted a pre-sentencing report before making his final decision on sentencing.
The author of the presentence report was critical of Thomas’s failure to address his substance abuse problems, since his intoxication played a role in the crime, but did note that Thomas’s “grief, guilt, and remorse for his crime appear to be real.”
At the sentencing hearing, Bower’s parents again said they were opposed to the sentence and Thomas’s eligibility for discretionary parole. They also presented a memorial photo montage of Bower’s life set to music played and sung by Bower herself.
At the end of the hearing, Judge Saxby rejected the negotiated sentence as too lenient, saying the absence of a restriction on Thomas’s eligibility for discretionary parole was the primary reason.
“I can't think of a better way to say it than this, but the possibility of parole within 16 years of the crime, or 14 years from today in essence cheapens the crime and formally, I conclude Alaska is a state in which domestic violence leading to murder is an extreme concern and Alaskans demand that these kinds of crimes be properly condemned,” Saxby said during the hearing.
He also said he thought Thomas should remain in prison until he “aged out” of criminal behavior, which would generally be around 50 years of age.
Thomas hasn’t yet been sentenced, and filed the petition for review to the Court of Appeals after that hearing.
The Court of Appeals found a number of problems with Saxby’s decision, but based its decision on Saxby’s characterization that the sentence didn’t fit the overall category of domestic violence murders, rather than Thomas’s specific crime. The court says the judge cannot impose a more severe parole restriction on a defendant that is not tied to specific details of the defendant’s case.
“When a judge sentences a criminal defendant and analyzes the need for a special restriction on the defendant’s eligibility for discretionary parole, the judge must engage in a case-specific analysis of the facts and circumstances of the particular case and the particular defendant,” the court wrote. “Here, however, the judge’s analysis is grounded on the judge’s generalized view of the appropriate sentence for an entire category of cases – domestic violence murder.” (Emphasis in original).
The court also found that there was no evidence presented during the case of when an offender would “age out” of criminal behavior. The court wrote that Saxby’s comment about eligibility for parole “’cheapen[ing] the crime’ strongly suggests that the judge was operating under incorrect legal assumptions about the procedures for granting discretionary parole.”
The court said that, “rather than making an individualized sentencing determination about parole eligibility based on the facts of Thomas’s specific case, the judge was voicing his disapproval of the sentencing framework enacted by the legislature for murder defendants in general. This was improper.”
The plea agreement is to be taken up again by the superior court.