Sunday, December 4, 2011
It was the why — not the who — that led to a plea agreement Tuesday in a fatal shooting in the cafeteria of Central High School,
Jamar Siler, 18, pleaded guilty in Knox County Criminal Court to second-degree murder in the August 2008 shooting death of 15-year-old Ryan McDonald.
Siler's defense attorney, Russell Greene, said there was no proof on why Siler, then 15, would fatally shoot McDonald. But Greene feared his theory that Siler simply acted on impulse because of the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome might fall on deaf ears of jurors tasked with deciding if Siler was guilty of first-degree murder.
"East Tennessee juries are tough," Greene said.
So Greene and prosecutor Leslie Nassios struck a deal in which Judge Mary Beth Leibowitz would sentence Siler to 30 years for second-degree murder, a penalty outside the normal range for offenders such as Siler.
He will receive credit for the three years he has been in custody.
Siler was initially charged as a juvenile but Knox County Juvenile Court Judge Tim Irwin ordered him tried as an adult.
Siler had been charged with first-degree murder, which could have netted him a life sentence with possibility of parole after 51 years.
Roger McDonald, the victim's uncle, said Siler looked "empty" in the courtroom Tuesday.
"He had nobody there for him," McDonald said. "I know it sounds crazy, and I'm not going to say I feel sorry for him, but these two kids were in and out of different programs and they slipped through the cracks and this is the result. My message is to society and the system as a whole, that we need to get a handle on these kids."
McDonald said his nephew had a rough childhood at times, and bounced around while living with family members. Despite that, he said, Ryan was a kindhearted teenager who cared for a stray dog at a nearby abandoned house and used his spare money to buy children in the neighborhood treats from the ice cream truck.
"He wasn't an angel by any means, but he wasn't a bad kid. He was just a kid," McDonald said.
The prospect of having Ryan's reputation challenged in court was enough for his family to support the plea deal. And though the family didn't think 30 years was enough, they accepted the sentence was beyond their control, McDonald said.
"I wasn't looking forward to my mom and my family having to sit through a trial and hear things on both sides. They would have tried to paint Ryan in a bad light, and we weren't looking forward to that," said McDonald. "I can't say we're satisfied with how it turned out, but we just have to live with the way turned out. We're not in charge of that."
Siler had an even worse childhood, according to Greene and juvenile court records.
Both his parents were drug addicts, addicted to both alcohol and crack cocaine. Siler, born in Florida but winding up in Knoxville, bounced from one state foster care system to another with little intervention.
Greene has been building a defense centered on Siler's ability to premeditate the shooting. Greene said Tuesday an expert had concluded Siler suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.
"The brain doesn't develop properly," Greene said of fetuses exposed to alcohol. "Some parts don't develop at all. (The syndrome) would go toward his ability to premeditate."
Greene learned about the syndrome from a 2004 Seattle study and consulted with the experts.
It would have been a rare legal challenge, however, and one Greene said he ultimately could not "in good conscience" pursue with Siler's life at stake and a plea deal on the table.
Knox County Schools officials declined to comment on the plea deal.