Teen arsonist receives lesser sentence because of head injury

He set fire to his family's Sifton home in 2011




A Sifton teenager convicted of burning his family’s house down last year was sentenced Tuesday to just under one year of confinement.

Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis gave Alex Michael Smith credit for the 360 days served in juvenile hall, however, so the teen won’t face any more time in custody. Smith also was sentenced to one year probation and 40 hours of community service. Smith was found guilty of first-degree arson last month.

The judge decided on a punishment below the standard sentencing range of about two years to about 2 1/2 years in a juvenile institution. Lewis agreed with defense attorney Jon McMullen, who argued the effects of the teen’s head injury were a mitigating factor in the case.

McMullen pointed to psychologists who had testified at trial that Smith’s injury — suffered during a physical education class eight days before the fire — affected his impulse control and cognitive functioning.

That argument was used in Smith’s Sept. 12 trial by the defense to try and show he was unable to form criminal intent.

While the judge didn’t buy the defense at trial, saying Smith “clearly had the ability to form and did form intent,” the judge did consider it for sentencing. Lewis also considered testimony by Smith’s family that the teen was an above-average student and a three-sport athlete, and has no criminal record, let alone discipline problems.

Smith, then 16, allegedly set the fire the morning of May 13, 2011, after fetching a gas can from an outside shed and pouring the flammable liquid into a cup to bring inside the house. He then dumped the gas into a recycling bin and ignited the fire.

Firefighters responded to the house in the 8500 block of Northeast 129th Avenue. The house was destroyed; Smith, his two siblings and his mother escaped safely.

Investigators said the blaze was apparently in retaliation after Smith had a fight with his mother.

Smith’s mother, Patricia Smith, testified at trial that her son had started acting strangely after he suffered the brain injury caused by being elbowed in the eye. After treatment at a hospital, he was diagnosed with post-concussion syndrome.

“This behavior and the arson was out of character,” Lewis said.

The judge recommended Smith be evaluated for any ongoing mental health treatment. His mother told Lewis that her son still receives medical treatment for the brain injury; he was found to have a learning disability.

Laura McVicker: www.twitter.com/col_courts; www.facebook.com/reportermcvicker; laura.mcvicker@columbian.com; 360-735-4516.