Editorial: ‘Justice-4-Alyssa’ demands change to sentencing law

A light sentence in a woman’s death and rape is inadequate. It calls for a change in sentencing law.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Many who read the headline in The Herald recently, “Man who raped dying Everett teen gets less than three years,” must have wondered, “What was the judge thinking?”

The judge was liklely thinking the same thing you may have, as Herald Reporter Caleb Hutton’s Nov. 16 story explained.

In sentencing Brian Varela, 19, to two years and 10 months in prison in the death of 18-year-old Alyssa Noceda, Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Linda Krese said the inadequacy of the sentence — mandated by state guidelines — understandably “surprised, even outraged” the family and friends of Noceda.

Krese said had seen more serious penalties handed out in auto theft cases.

That’s less than three years for an overdose that might have been reversed and a death that Varela contributed to, for a rape that was disturbing in its callousness, and the treatment of Noceda’s lifeless body that was criminal in its attempt to hide what he had done.

According to court documents: Following a party at Varela’s Martha Lake mobile home, Varela in his bedroom offered Noceda crushed pills he told her were Percocet, an opioid, that she snorted and followed by smoking concentrated THC. Noceda collapsed moments later. Test later showed she had ingested a fatal mix of fentanyl and a generic of Xanax.

Rather than call 911, Varela messaged photos of Noceda’s half-naked body to friends, writing in one text, “But not joking she od bruh,” and in another that he was raping her “to pass the time.” With Noceda unconscious and dying, Varela played a video game, then fell asleep. He woke later and found her dead.

Varela then attempted to conceal his crime. He used Noceda’s thumbprint to unlock her phone and post a message on Snapchat that suggested she planned to run away. He then washed her body to destroy DNA evidence and put her body in a plastic crate, planning to bury her near Marysville before fleeing to Mexico.

Varela had been charged with first-degree manslaughter and second-degree rape, charges that could have resulted in a sentence of 10 1/2 years. Prosecutors, instead, reduced the charges in a plea deal to second-degree manslaughter, third-degree rape and unlawful disposal of human remains.

The plea deal was offered, Snohomish County Deputy Prosecutor Toni Montgomery explained to The New York Times, because prosecutors were not certain the first-degree manslaughter charge would result in a guilty verdict. In many cases, Washington state law, Montgomery told the Times, does not consider it a crime if an individual fails to get help for someone who is dying. The only exceptions are for parents and if the person dying is elderly, pregnant or a child.

Under the state’s sentencing guidelines, the second-degree manslaughter charge mandated a prison term of 24 to 36 months, one that took into consideration Varela’s lack of previous criminal convictions. At the same time, the penalties for the other crimes carried shorter sentences and had to run concurrently.

In court, Judge Krese said she was “not sure the Legislature really contemplated something like this,” in determining sentencing laws.

It should do so now.

The state’s Sentencing Reform Act, passed in 1981 and enacted in 1983, established a sentencing “grid” that was intended to end the practice of indeterminate sentences for felonies and ensure sentencing standards that were determined by the seriousness of the offense and an offender’s criminal history. This also limited the discretion of judges that sometimes resulted in sentences that did not fit the crime and were either too harsh or not severe enough and were sometimes applied unevenly.

But those sentencing guidelines can and have been amended during almost every legislative session since they were established, reports a history of the SRA by the state sentencing guidelines commission. The guidelines have been amended to require longer terms for violent offenses, sex offenders and drug offenses. Likewise, citizen’s initiatives have resulted in longer prison terms for armed crimes and established the nation’s first “three strikes” standard.

As those reforms continue, the severity of punishment should be adjusted, shorter in particular for nonviolent crimes, longer for others, including failing to call for aid for a dying person.

At the federal level, President Trump has said he is now open to bipartisan prison and sentencing reforms that have been discussed for years in Congress. The First Step Act, passed by the House in May, would reduce the mandatory-minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders, among other proposals. There appears enough support from Democrats and Republicans in the Senate for passage.

At the state level, the sentence mandated for Varela points to the need for reforms that would address the callous failure to summon medical assistance or otherwise call for help. Such a reform could be focused narrowly in cases involving overdose, as it has been done to impose that responsibility on parents and to protect the elderly, children and pregnant women.

Among its goals, the state’s Sentencing Reform Act was passed to ensure that the punishment for an offense was proportionate to the seriousness of the crime and the offender’s criminal history; promote respect for the law by providing just punishment; ensure that sentences were meted out equally and to protect the public.

The state’s sentencing guidelines failed Noceda’s family and friends.

At Varela’s sentencing, Noceda’s friends and family wore black sweatshirts that read “Justice-4-Alyssa” across the back.

Changing sentencing guidelines to more appropriately meet the stated goals of the SRA would honor her memory and deliver some measure of justice for Alyssa.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial, based on earlier reporting by Herald staff, incorrectly reflected Judge Linda Krese’s statements regarding the mandated verdict. Krese said that she could understand why friends of family of the victim were “surprised, even outraged” by the inadequacy of the sentence. The editorial’s headline has been corrected as well.

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