'The true cost of evil': Freeman High School shooter sentenced to 40 years in prison

·6 min read

Aug. 20—Freeman school shooter Caleb Sharpe was sentenced to spend 40 years in prison Friday.

Sharpe will have to go before a sentencing review board prior to his release, Spokane County Superior Court Judge Michael Price ruled. The board will evaluate Sharpe's likelihood to reoffend and his level of rehabilitation. With credit for time served, it will be 35 years before he can request release. Sharpe has 30 days to appeal the sentence.

There was little reaction in the courtroom when Price announced the sentence after more than an hour of explaining the legal context for his ruling.

Ami Strahan, mother of Sam Strahan, the teen who died during the attack, hugged friends and family after the proceedings concluded. Strahan declined to comment after the sentencing.

Sharpe's parents, Ben and Ericka Sharpe, were escorted from the courtroom.

In a statement, Randy Russell, Freeman School District superintendent, said the community is relieved the case is over after a "difficult" five years.

"We are so proud of our students, staff, and parents who have been resilient and resolute," the statement reads. "We look forward to our future and we want to thank all those who have stood by Freeman and offered their love and support during this time. Your kindness will never be forgotten. We remain Freeman Strong."

The quiet celebration of the end of a nearly five-year ordeal was a stark contrast to the difficult morning preceding the sentencing.

A heavy silence hung in the air as the surveillance video of the Freeman High School shooting played in the courtroom Friday morning.

Seated in the front row of the courtroom, Ami Strahan determinedly watched the screen as it showed her son follow Sharpe, carrying a rifle, down the second-floor hallway at Freeman.

She covered her face as her son collapsed to the ground, dead after Sharpe shot him twice.

Sharpe didn't react to the video, while his parents, seated behind him, closed their eyes.

On Sept. 13, 2017, Sharpe brought multiple weapons to school and opened fire on his classmates, killing Strahan, injuring three girls and terrorizing dozens of others. Sharpe, now 20, earlier this year pleaded guilty to aggravated murder, three counts of attempted murder and one count of assault.

On Friday morning, Sharpe apologized publicly for the first time.

"There's only really one thing that I can say," Sharpe said. "And that is, I am sorry."

He apologized to Strahan, the girls he shot, and the entire community.

"That day showed me the true cost of evil. Everything that this community had to pay, my own family had to pay," Sharpe said. "From that point on and now, evil has no place in my heart."

He can never repay his wrongs or do enough penance, Sharpe said. Now, he prays for forgiveness, Sharpe added.

As he spoke, Ami Strahan cried, comforted by her daughter, Emily.

Strahan, the three girls who were injured and dozens of community members asked Price to hand down the maximum sentence allowed by law, nearly 46 years to life in prison.

Brooke Foley, Sharpe's public defender, argued Friday morning that because of his age and immaturity at the time of the shooting, Sharpe should be considered a youthful offender, giving Price the discretion to sentence him below the standard range. Foley asked for a 20-year fixed sentence.

The law in Washington is clear that juveniles' brains are immature, making them less "culpable" for their crimes, Foley argued. Sharpe should have the chance to live a meaningful life after his incarceration and experience key milestones like voting, building a career, marriage and raising a family.

The law also states that the sentence should focus on rehabilitation, not retribution, Foley argued.

"His prospects for change and rehabilitation are strong," Foley said of Sharpe.

"Justice is following the law, despite demands for blood," Foley said.

Deputy Prosecutor Sharon Hedlund agreed Sharpe was a youthful offender and that his sentence should be below the standard range, but urged Price to settle on a sentence that would ensure community safety. Hedlund argued a 35-year sentence would be more appropriate, along with the review board requirement.

"We saw a demonstration of the worst of human nature and the best of human nature," Hedlund said of the day of the shooting, calling Sam Strahan heroic for being the only student to confront Sharpe in an attempt to prevent the shooting.

She noted that Sharpe has continued concerning behavior that mental health experts for both the defense and prosecution agree upon.

"His obsessive and compulsive tendencies were and are an issue," Hedlund said.

She argued the community needs assurances that Sharpe will receive treatment and won't be released until he's ready to re-enter society, something the sentencing review board could provide.

Judge Price spoke at length before handing down the sentence, he said in part to dispel misinformation and misunderstandings about the judicial process in the case and the sentencing options available to him, along with offering condolences to the victims and Freeman community.

"There truly are no words that I can offer that can provide comfort," Price said.

He also noted that this sentence will not make victims feel whole again, but will hopefully provide closure. Price spoke directly to Ami Strahan about how learning about Sam affected him.

"It's clear Sam would have gone on to do great things," Price said.

Sharpe deliberately planned his actions and took extreme steps to conceal his plans from those around him, Price said. The blame lies solely on Sharpe for what happened, he said, but Sharpe's parents and the school could have done a better job noticing numerous red flags, he added.

Price noted the law surrounding juvenile sentencing has rapidly evolved at both the state and federal level in recent years, eliminating the possibility of a life sentence without the possibility of parole in this case. That's something numerous victims and community members asked for in their statements.

Sharpe was sentenced as an adult, but under Washington state law, Price could not hand down a sentence in the adult standard sentencing range of at least 75 to 90 years due to limitations on maximum sentences for juveniles. In the 2021 State v. Haag case, the Washington state Supreme Court ruled that judges must favor rehabilitation over retribution, and that any sentence over 46 years for a juvenile is a "de facto life sentence."

After hearing how each new hearing "ripped off the Band-Aid" for numerous victims, Price said it's of the utmost importance to him that this sentence withstand appeal. There was no plea agreement in this case, Price said. Sharpe left the sentence solely up to the judge, and while both sides made recommendations, Price chose not to follow them.

Price agreed there were significant mitigating factors, like Sharpe's age, immaturity, mental health condition and personality traits. However, the reason Sharpe brutally "slaughtered" his classmate and attempted to kill others remains unknown, Price said. Attorneys' three experts were unable to determine the root cause of Sharpe's actions, agreeing Sharpe currently has no acute mental illnesses.

"Nothing explains" Sharpe's actions, Price said.

Ultimately, Price felt the 35-year sentence recommended by prosecutors was not proportional to the severity of Sharpe's crimes.

He sentenced Sharpe to spend 40 years in prison before he can appeal to the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board for release. Foley said Sharpe had yet to decide if he would appeal the sentence. With credit for time served, Sharpe will be 55 before he could return to the community.