Mimesis Law
23 October 2021

Crafting Just The Right Sentence for a Teenager’s Really Bad Decision

May 13, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — Given his crime, Dylan Martin certainly isn’t going to be in the running for great-grandson-of-the-year anytime soon:

The two teenagers who forced an elderly Kennewick woman into the trunk of her own car and drove 200 miles to Oregon were sentenced to a combined 20 years in prison.

Dylan Martin received a 9½-year term for the November 2015 abduction of his great-grandmother, The Tri-City Herald reports. The 17-year-old pleaded guilty last week in Benton County Superior Court to first-degree kidnapping, first-degree burglary and theft of a motor vehicle.

Situations don’t get much more bizarre than that, as it’s hard to imagine what could have possibly made Martin decide that kidnapping his great-grandmother was a good idea. Sure, he is only seventeen-years-old now and it happened last year, but what Martin did isn’t just typical stupid teenager stuff. His sentence, one that will keep him behind bars until he’s in his late twenties, consuming the years where his classmates will go to college and start to make a life for themselves as young adults, certainly reflects that. It also raises some interesting issues.

As is the case with lots of defendants, Martin now regrets what he did:

“The only thing I have to say is I’m sorry. This was the worst decision I have ever made,” he told the court.

Apologizing at sentencing is so common it often seems expected. Some judges respond to a defendant not wanting to say anything with a raised eyebrow. It’s as if an apology is an integral part of the process, as routine and essential as a defendant being prompted to state his name and date or birth, or the judge asking if any legal cause exists that should prevent sentencing from proceeding.

Just as unimpactful is Martin’s observation about it being the worst decision he’s ever made. For any first-time felon, that should always be true. For a teen like Martin, it’s even more important. If it isn’t the worst decision he’s ever made, the judge should be worried. If it is, then he’s just your normal stupid teen who sticks his great-grandmother in the trunk of a car for no apparent reason, not an especially bad one.

On the other hand, although he was the older of the two, he’s less culpable than his co-defendant:

Billy Underwood, 16, who admitted to executing most of the plot to gag, bind and kidnap Hazel Abel, now 87, was issued a 10½-year sentence. He also apologized during sentencing.

If Underwood was in fact the one who executed most of the plan, it certainly seems appropriate that he’d get a stiffer sentence, even if it’s just by a year. Few people are going to have a problem with the difference. It’s the fact two teenagers are each going away for about a decade that’s the real issue.

The victim isn’t exactly begging for mercy, but she also isn’t pushing for throwing the book at the kids:

Abel, in a statement read in court, told the teens that she’s sorry for what they’ve been through. “Behave yourself in prison and maybe some day you will have a good life.”

There’s a certain charming naivety to the way the elderly view the system. Great-grandmother Abel probably believes prison might reform those kids. She clearly thinks it won’t destroy their ability to have a good life. Maybe when she was their age, the system would’ve done something other than warehouse Martin and Underwood for a decade with a bunch of terrible criminal influences, slowly acclimating them to accept violence as a way of life and replacing whatever values system they might’ve had with a respect-obsessed code of conduct sure to land them back in prison again shortly after their release, but things are different now.

Only their co-defendant received a sentence with a substantial a rehabilitative element:

A third co-defendant was ordered to serve as much as 2½-years in a state juvenile institution but has filed an appeal. She was 14 at the time of the abduction and was charged in juvenile court. Martin and Underwood were charged as adults.

Their co-defendant might have been younger as well as less culpable, but there’s something strange about one kid being treated like a kid and two others getting four times the sentence in adult court. It isn’t like kids quit being kids when they do something really bad. A person doesn’t have to be fully developed to do an awful thing.

What the long sentences for the two boys may reflect is how bad the thing they did was:

Martin kidnapped his great-grandmother Nov. 2, 2015, with the help of the two friends by throwing dirt in her face, putting an apron on her head and tying her hands, then stuffing her and her Chihuahua, Tessa, into the trunk of her 2001 Dodge Neon. They drove for six hours, stopping at a Walmart in Wood Village, Oregon, court documents show.

The three teens went into the store to buy toiletries. While they were inside, Abel untied her hands, pulled a cord to pop open the trunk and ran to a store employee, who called police, according to the probable cause affidavit.

Prosecutors, of course, wanted even more time than the judge gave the kids. They’d asked for fourteen years, a sentence that would’ve consumed the kids’ entire twenties and meant that, upon release, the two would have spent close to as much of their lives behind bars as they spent free. Sure, it’s an awful thing to target great-grandmother as an easy mark and do terrible things to her, but she ended up fine. Fourteen years ago, Martin and Underwood were toddlers. There’s something more than a little troubling about giving someone a sentence anywhere even close to the entire amount of time they’ve had to develop as human beings.

Things might not have ended as well, however:

Court documents show that Martin and Underwood told investigators that they considered knocking Abel unconscious, killing her and torching the car with her body still inside, The Oregonian/OregonLive reported in 2015. Martin claimed he had stolen $60 from his great-grandmother a week before, the affidavit said.

The fact Martin would even considered killing his great-grandmother is frightening. That he and Underwood would consider it, however, may only go to show how immature and irrational they really were, especially in light of the fact it may have all been to avoid getting busted for stealing sixty dollars.

That’s the problem with teens. They can do monstrous things, things that are often every bit as bad if not worse than what adults are capable of doing. Martin may well have been on his way to becoming evil incarnate. Or he may have just been a stupid teenager with stupid teenage friends, and they were all too young to appreciate how bad a decision they were about to make. Determining the right sentence for juveniles like Martin and Underwood isn’t easy in large part because it’s impossible to tell in which category they best fit.

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