Crain attorneys: 20-year sentence balances retribution, chance for rehabilitation

David Albers/Staff
- Alex Crain leaves the courtroom after his sentencing at the Collier County Courthouse on Thursday, April 19, 2012, in Naples. Crain plead no contest to two counts of manslaughter in the shooting death of his parents and was sentenced to about 20 years in prison and 10 years probation.

Photo by DAVID ALBERS // Buy this photo

David Albers/Staff - Alex Crain leaves the courtroom after his sentencing at the Collier County Courthouse on Thursday, April 19, 2012, in Naples. Crain plead no contest to two counts of manslaughter in the shooting death of his parents and was sentenced to about 20 years in prison and 10 years probation.

This Dec. 9, 2010 booking photo released by the Collier County Sheriff's Department shows 14-year-old Alexander Crain. The teenager was charged with two counts of second-degree murder after his parents were found dead in their Naples, Fla. bedroom. (AP Photo/Collier County Sheriff Department)

Photo by Collier County Sheriff Departmen

This Dec. 9, 2010 booking photo released by the Collier County Sheriff's Department shows 14-year-old Alexander Crain. The teenager was charged with two counts of second-degree murder after his parents were found dead in their Naples, Fla. bedroom. (AP Photo/Collier County Sheriff Department)

Thomas and Kelly Crain

Thomas and Kelly Crain

Video from NBC-2

Alex Crain had been composed, even stoic, throughout Thursday's sentencing for killing his parents.

But when the judge made his plea agreement and sentence official — 20 years in prison — tears welled up in the 15-year-old's eyes.

"He's obviously emotionally crushed," said Brian Bieber, one of Crain's lawyers. "But he's working every day toward rebuilding his mental state and he's satisfied that this chapter of his life is now closed."

For shooting and killing his parents at their Golden Gate Estates home in December 2010 — a crime still without a known motive — Crain will spend up to 20 years and two months in prison. He pleaded no contest to two manslaughter charges Thursday, avoiding a possible 60-year sentence if convicted on both counts. Nine years and ten months of probation will follow his release.

Crain now will be sent to a Department of Corrections reception center, then assigned to an undetermined state prison to serve time among the state's nearly 200 other juvenile inmates. He will be the only juvenile in prison for manslaughter.

Under Florida law, the earliest Crain could leave prison is age 31.

It's not unprecedented for a juvenile killer to successfully re-enter society, though history suggests the results are "mixed," said Kathleen Heide, a University of South Florida professor and renowned expert on teens who commit homicides.

"It would be wrong to make a blanket statement that juveniles who commit the most horrific of acts can't be rehabilitated," said Heide, who is not familiar with the details of Crain's case.

Lawyers from both sides sounded optimistic Thursday that Crain would never commit a violent offense again.

"We believe the sentence is a sign he's being punished for the crimes he committed, and there's hope perhaps that as a young man, when he gets out of prison, he can become a productive member of society and give back," Assistant State Attorney Richard Montecalvo said.

About 15 of Crain's family members filled two courtroom benches Thursday, backing the teen. They declined to comment after the hearing, though another Crain lawyer, Mark Rankin, said they remained supportive of the former Palmetto Ridge High School student.

"They feel very safe with him," Rankin said. "They don't worry at all that he would do anything like this again, and they're the people that know him best."

Crain's sentencing ends a case that remains shrouded in a mystery: Why did the then-14-year-old, who had no history of violence or mental health issues, shoot his parents, Thomas and Kelly?

To date, only Crain knows. After his arrest, Crain requested a lawyer and never spoke to investigators about a motive, State Attorney's Office spokeswoman Samantha Syoen said. Bieber also said Crain has never told anyone in public or private about his reasons.

"We don't think anyone will ever know exactly why this happened, except that there was a mental health aspect that played a large part in what happened the morning of the shooting," Bieber said.

Prosecutors on Thursday downplayed the mental health argument, saying they decided to charge Crain as an adult in March 2011 "when it was determined there really weren't any mental issues that gave us concern."

While Bieber said doctors who evaluated Crain "have come to the conclusion that he's not a risk of re-offending," he stood by earlier statements that Crain had psychological issues that contributed to the shooting.

"Any layperson or competent mental health professional understands that mental illness, however temporary that may be, played a significant factor in this horrific and tragic situation," he said.

Despite the difference in opinion on Crain's mental health, lawyers from both sides agreed that the 20-year sentence balanced retribution and the chance for rehabilitation.

"We believe this is a solid punishment that will protect society," Montecalvo said.

Said Bieber: "Alex will now be serving his time in prison, paying his debt to society, and will essentially have the rest of his life ahead of him."

Heide, the juvenile homicide expert, added that two factors greatly contribute to the ability of such juveniles to reintegrate into society — the quality of mental health treatment a juvenile receives in prison, and the juvenile's support system once freed.

"It's a very heavy burden for an individual who faces that situation," Heide said. "Even if they come to terms with what they've done, it's really a lifelong issue."

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