Niles teen resentenced for murdering his grandfather

Published 5:18 pm Friday, June 26, 2015

Leader photo/CRAIG HAUPERT Dakotah Eliason appears at a re-sentencing hearing Friday in Berrien County Trial Court in Niles.

Leader photo/CRAIG HAUPERT
Dakotah Eliason appears at a re-sentencing hearing Friday in Berrien County Trial Court in Niles.

In the five years since 14-year-old Dakotah Eliason killed his grandfather, nothing about the crime itself has changed.

Eliason, now 19 years old, still picked up a handgun from a coat rack in the Buchanan Township home in which he was a guest. He still aimed that handgun at the head of Jesse Miles, who was asleep on a couch. He still pulled the trigger.

What has changed since then is the punishment Eliason is receiving for killing Miles.

Tried as an adult, Eliason was originally sentenced in 2010 to life in prison without the possibility of parole — the punishment mandated in the state of Michigan for first-degree murder convictions.

However, in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is unconstitutional to mandatorily sentence juveniles to life in prison.

That ruling allowed Eliason a second chance at life outside a prison cell.

It meant that he would be resentenced — this time under the new rules — in front of the same man who handed down the original sentence, Berrien County Judge Scott Schofield.

After going through the new process, Schofield decided Eliason did not deserve a life sentence, citing, among other factors, a “suggestion of rehabilitative potential” for Eliason, and the fact that the man was so young at the time.

On Friday, Schofield re-sentenced Eliason in Berrien County Trial Court to a minimum of 35 years and a maximum of 70 years in the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Eliason has credit for nearly five years behind bars, meaning he could get out before his 50th birthday.

Prior to being sentenced, Eliason turned around to face members of the victim’s family and asked them for forgiveness. When he said that he loved Miles, Angie Masunas — Miles’ niece — yelled out, “Then why’d you kill him? Why’d you do it?”

Eliason closed his eyes and breathed deeply, taking several seconds before he spoke again.

Instead of answering the question, he said there is nothing he can do to bring Miles back.

“You may not ever forgive me and I don’t expect you to,” Eliason said, “but I just hope that at some point in the future you can at least remember that we did have some good memories from when I was younger.”

A few minutes later, Eliason revisited Masunas’ question, saying that he still does not know why he killed his grandfather.

“The question ‘why’ has been a big part of this. I am not sure I will ever have a definite answer, but I am trying to find one,” he said.

Some of Miles’ family members say they do not think Eliason deserves freedom.

Miles’ daughter, Vickie Hartz, said she does not understand how the court could rule that life without parole is too harsh a punishment when her father is dead.

“I don’t believe somebody deserves a second chance that premeditatedly murdered my dad,” she said. “My dad didn’t get a second chance, why should he?”

Hartz’s husband, Peter, said he feels like justice for Miles was lost in the discussion about what is cruel and unusual punishment for Eliason.

“Dakotah gets to see his father still… my wife does not have that luxury. I don’t have that luxury. My family members do not have that luxury,” he said. “We have a grave site to go at and visit. That’s the interaction we get today.”

Not everyone who spoke at Friday’s sentencing hearing felt Eliason should spend the rest of his days in a jail cell.

Miles’ wife, Jean, who was home at the time of the murder, said getting over the loss of her husband has been difficult, but she has found strength in God. She said she loves Eliason and that he has grown to be a good young man.

“Anyone that knew my husband at all would know he would not want him (Eliason) to spend life behind bars,” she said.

Eliason’s father, Steven, said he has seen a positive change in his son since the murder. Dakotah, he said, has earned his GED in prison and has helped other inmates earn their GEDs.

“I hope other people can see that change and the good that has come out of him now,” he said.

Berrien County Prosecutor Michael Sepic asked the judge for a sentence of between 40 and 60 years, while Dakota’s attorney, Jonathan Sacks, asked for 25 years.

Originally, Sepic filed a motion to keep Dakotah in prison for life. That motion was denied by Schofield earlier this year.