YAKIMA - A judge called Miguel Gaitan a coward yesterday as she sentenced the 14-year-old to four consecutive life terms in prison for the slaughter of a family of four.
Gaitan, convicted as an adult on four counts of aggravated first-degree murder, declined to make a statement before he was sentenced by Yakima County Superior Court Judge Heather Van Nuys.
"Your conduct was evil, vile, brutal and cowardly," Van Nuys said. "The community will ask why you were not sentenced to death."
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled people under the age of 16 are not eligible for the death penalty. The only other sentencing option in the case was life in prison with no chance at parole.
Van Nuys took pains to make the sentence as stiff as possible, ruling that the life terms had to be served consecutively, and adding $200,000 in fines and costs that Gaitan must pay from meager earnings in prison jobs.
"I assure you that is where you will die," Van Nuys said to the youth.
Accomplice Joel Ramos, also 14, in August pleaded guilty to four counts of first-degree murder and was sentenced to 80 years in prison.
No motive was established for the killings. Earlier, prosecutors said they may have occurred to impress members of a street gang. The youths were arrested after bragging about the killings to friends.
During yesterday's hearing Gaitan joked with his lawyers and stared at the judge.
Gaitan's lawyers, Nicholas Marchi and Antonio Salazar of Seattle, have filed a notice of appeal. They declined comment.
Yakima County prosecutor Jeff Sullivan said the appeal will likely center on the judge's refusal to move the highly publicized case to another county.
Murdered in their trailer home the night of March 24 were Michael and Lynn Skelton, both 34; Jason Skelton, 12, and Bryan Skelton, 6.
Jason Skelton was a classmate of Gaitan and Ramos at a Granger school. The family lived in Outlook, about 30 miles south of Yakima.
According to court testimony, Gaitan and Ramos burst through the front and back doors of the trailer home the evening of March 24.
They clubbed and stabbed Michael Skelton, who was crippled. They beat and stabbed Jason. Lynn Skelton was killed as she stepped out of a shower. Bryan was hiding under his bed covers when he was beaten and stabbed.
A 12-member jury took less than five hours to render the guilty verdict on Monday, after a week-long trial.
Photographs and videotapes of the crime scene were so gruesome that mental-health professionals counseled jury members after the verdict.
"A lot of jurors were showing signs of stress," said juror Phil Jongeward after the sentencing.
Sullivan characterized Gaitan as a remorseless sociopath who has yet to show that he comprehends the enormity of his crime.
"He doesn't seem to care," Sullivan said. "I'd have liked to have had the death-penalty option."
The Skeltons had moved to the Yakima Valley about two years ago, seeking to escape violence in Fresno, Calif. They were not well known in the community and no one other than prosecutors spoke on their behalf during the sentencing hearing.
Sullivan asked Van Nuys to make the sentence as punitive as possible to warn any future judges or a governor who may be petitioned to release Gaitan from prison.
He noted that a naked and defenseless Lynn Skelton suffered about 50 stab wounds.
"The defendant told a friend that he enjoyed it," Sullivan said.
Bryan Skelton was incapable of defending himself because of his age, Sullivan added.
Van Nuys said exceptional circumstances were present and ensured that details highlighting the cruelty of the crimes would be part of Gaitan's files.
She wondered how anyone could kill a classmate, a 6-year-old child, a crippled man and someone taking a shower.
"All of that is great cowardice," she said.