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May 20, 2022

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Caleb Sharpe’s guilty plea in Freeman school shooting: What happens next?

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SPOKANE — Spokane Superior Court Judge Michael Price will have several big decisions before him later this month when Caleb Sharpe is sentenced for the fatal shooting at Freeman High School in 2017.

Those decisions could set off a series of appeals, even though Sharpe has admitted guilt in the shooting death of Sam Strahan and attempted murder of other students. The parties did not agree to a term of imprisonment, which means Price could hand down a sentence that could be challenged by Sharpe or prosecutors.

“There’s going to be a titanic fight at sentencing,” said Jeffry Finer, a Spokane attorney who handles criminal appellate work at both the state and federal level. He also teaches the appellate process at Gonzaga’s School of Law.

One option that won’t be available is life without the possibility of parole, however. The Washington State Supreme Court has issued several rulings that those who commit crimes as juveniles may not be sentenced to life in prison without the chance of release, including one ruling as recently as March that extended that protection to defendants over the age of 18 whose brain development demonstrates they’re still adolescents.

Sharpe was 15 when he opened fire at Freeman in September 2017, killing Strahan and wounding three other students.

The plea agreement dropped dozens of assault charges against Sharpe, representing students who may have been struck by gunfire. Those charges could have been used in calculating Sharpe’s criminal history, Finer said, which could have lengthened his prison term.

Still, Price will consider guidelines that would keep Sharpe in custody between 25 years and the rest of his life on the aggravated murder charge for the killing of Strahan. But Finer noted that Price is not a party to the agreement, and could hand down any sentence he deems necessary after hearing from victims, mental health experts and attorneys.

That decision starts a clock that can last a year, in which Sharpe could bring an argument in court that new evidence should prompt a re-evaluation of his sentence, Finer said. But he couldn’t argue that he’s innocent, an option taken away by the guilty plea. But appeals could eventually be made to the Washington and U.S. Supreme Courts, if there’s a dispute about constitutional protections. That can include an argument that Sharpe was not effectively represented by his attorneys, though such a claim gets more difficult and time-consuming with each successive appeal.

“The higher you go, the harder it gets,” Finer said.

Already pending in the Washington appellate courts were motions filed by the defense team challenging Price’s rulings on pretrial motions, including whether Sharpe could argue insanity or what’s known as “diminished capacity” in his defense against the charges against him. A hearing was scheduled Thursday to address those appeals, but was not held, said Brett Pearce, a Spokane County deputy prosecutor handling the case. It was unclear Thursday how the higher court would rule following the announcement of the plea deal.

The prohibition of a life sentence for juveniles in Washington means Sharpe is likely to someday be released from custody. There have been few studies of school shooters who are released from prison, because many of them are tried as adults and receive lengthy sentences. A 2019 Washington Post analysis cited a study identifying 10 such defendants, some of whom were tried as minors and released when they reached adulthood.

“Most folks we throw in prison get out at some point,” Finer said.

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