Eliason sentenced to life

Published 2:47 am Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Fifteen-year-old Dakotah Eliason’s father, Steve Eliason, and grandmother, Jean Miles  wife of the murdered Jesse Miles — speak after Dakotah’s sentencing Monday. (Daily Star photo/JESSICA SIEFF)

Fifteen-year-old Dakotah Eliason’s father, Steve Eliason, and grandmother, Jean Miles wife of the murdered Jesse Miles — speak after Dakotah’s sentencing Monday. (Daily Star photo/JESSICA SIEFF)

As he faced a crowded courtroom, 15-year-old Dakotah Eliason looked upon members of his family, members of the press and political figures. He looked upon supporters and unforgiving victims.

And he apologized.

“I’m sorry that everyone feels the way they do,” Eliason said as he was sentenced to life without parole for the first-degree murder of his grandfather, Jesse Miles.

He told prosecutor Art Cotter though he wishes he hadn’t been convicted of first-degree murder, he understood the Berrien County chief prosecutor was just doing his job.

“If I don’t regret this every day, then I truly am less than human,” he added, turning back to his family. Behind him sat his grandmother, Jean, and his father, Steven.

But Eliason seemed focused on Miles’ sister, Mary, and daughter, Vickie Hartz, who sat just a few feet away from him, separated by only a pair of swinging courtroom doors.

“If I don’t regret this every day then I do deserve to die in prison,” Eliason continued.

He told his family as he stood before them, his heart was pounding in his chest and his legs felt made of lead.

“I’m barely able to keep from pissing my pants right now,” he said.

“I’m sorry for all the pain I’ve caused you,” he added. “I will still love you no matter how mad you might be at me.”

As he spoke, several members of his family became emotional. Eliason turned from one side to another, seemingly succumbing to his own emotion.

“No matter how much everyone hates me I’ll still love you. I’ll never forget the good memories I had with you,” he said, including those memories with his grandfather. “He was a good man. He didn’t deserve it.”

Though he said he wished he could “take it back,” Eliason said there was nothing  he could do to go back to the early morning hours of March 7, when he shot Miles in the head while he slept on the couch.

“Every day I deal with the pain,” he said. “It never gets better. It only gets worse.”

Going back to the hours following the shooting, Eliason commented on a statement he made to Michigan State Police Det. Sgt. Fabian Suarez, in which he had said “for about five seconds” after shooting someone “all the tension goes away.”

He hadn’t finished that statement, he said. “The tension — it goes away but it comes back ten-fold.”

As members of his family wept while he spoke, Eliason seemed emotionally taxed by the statement, saying, “I still love you all.”

It is customary for defendants to stand before the judge alongside their attorney as they are sentenced but Eliason sat after speaking, breathing heavily.

A judge’s opinion

At the start of proceedings Judge Scott Schofield read his opinion regarding the motion made by Eliason’s defense attorney Lanny Fisher, which stated the state-mandated sentence of life without parole in first-degree murder cases should be deemed as cruel and unusual punishment in accordance with the Eighth Amendment because of Eliason’s age.

Standing before the court at 15, Eliason committed the crime at the age of 14 and was charged as an adult.

“A judge’s opinion should not be an Agatha Christie mystery,” Schofield said. “I am denying the defense’s motion. I am rejecting his claim.”

As he read his official opinion on the matter, Schofield said, “just as life without parole sentences are not categorically unconstitutional for all juvenile homicide offenders in general, neither is a life without parole sentence cruel and unusual when imposed upon Dakotah Eliason in particular.

“Other than his juvenile status,” Schofield continued, “there is nothing about this defendant that makes him less culpable than any other person who has murdered another human being in cold blood.”

A call upon the defense

In what was clearly a direct challenge to the defense, Cotter preceded the official sentencing by speaking on the matter of three psychological evaluations administered to Eliason.

Those reports, he said, are confidential. The defense “has decided it is to go into the public square,” he said. And Cotter said for that reason he felt the determination of whether or not the punishment fit the crime in this case was a matter of public discussion.

“But you can’t have it while the defense is hiding from the public,” he said. “I can not have (the reports entered) into evidence but (Fisher) can.

“I call upon the defense now to admit these three reports so the public has the opportunity to know everything I know about this case,” he said.

Cotter said the only opportunity Eliason would have to walk free again would be by commutation of sentence.

“No governor worth their soul” would grant commutation to Eliason, he said.

Fisher responded by saying “that ship has passed” in regard to the evaluations and that he felt it inappropriate to discuss that matter at sentencing.

A victimized family

While Eliason apologized for the death of his grandfather, Miles was not the only victim in what has become a notorious Niles case.

“This has really devastated me,” Hartz told the court. “It’s torn apart the family. My dad was a good man. He never hurt anybody. There’s no reason for it. I don’t understand why he killed my dad. My dad didn’t get a second chance, so why should he?”

Miles’ niece Angie Masenas told Eliason he took away a father, an uncle, a brother and a friend.

“You deserve to wear that suit for the rest of you life,” she said.

Standing up for his son, Steven agreed “(this) has devastated our family. It’s been a very hard thing for all of us.”

He added it was imperative to reevaluate the laws that allow a juvenile to be sentenced to life without parole.

“You are playing God because you’ve sent him to die in jail,” he said.

Cotter said he hoped the government approached with this case in 20 or 25 years would know what he knows about the case in order to prevent any chance of commutation.

Calling Eliason emotionless and devoid of remorse, Cotter reminded the court that the gun used to kill Jesse Miles was found by police with the hammer cocked. It is his belief, he said, that Eliason might have killed his grandmother as well.

“She is the luckiest person in this room,” he said. “In 24 years, I’ve never seen anything like it…

“I loathe sending a 14-year-old to prison for the rest of his life,” he said, adding that during the investigation he “was hoping there would be something there — something I could cling to so when I acted in the people’s name and let him plead to a lesser offense that it would be the right thing to do.”

That was not to be, Cotter said, calling on the defense again to release details of the forensic examinations that have lead him to believe Eliason as a “very, very, very dangerous individual.”

“I’m convinced this young man is dangerous because I don’t believe he has a conscience,” he said. “… he may have the face of a teenager but when I look at him all I can see are the alarm bells going off and if he does get out, the public will have to sleep with one eye open.”