“All crimes are not created equal.
“All murders are not created equal.
“All 13-year-olds are not created equal.”
Erie County Assistant District Attorney Thomas M. Finnerty wanted to make that clear at the sentencing Thursday for Jean Sanchez, who was 13 in May 2014 when he strangled Ameer al-Shammari, also 13.
In October, Sanchez pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, and County Judge Sheila A. DiTullio committed to sentencing the teenager to the maximum penalty of nine years to life in prison.
Prior to that formal sentencing Thursday, Finnerty said his statement as the prosecutor was as much for future interest as for those in the courtroom. He said he wanted to make sure that years from now, a parole board or someone else “driven by ideology or misplaced sympathy,” did not decide to release the killer from prison and allow him “to re-enter society, free to do as he pleases.”
With Sanchez, now 14, standing a few feet away in the courtroom, wearing khakis, a pink and blue plaid shirt and handcuffs, the prosecutor cited the “utter viciousness” of the attack on Ameer, an immigrant boy who his killer didn’t even know.
Finnerty asked that no one ever forget “how exceedingly cruel (the killer’s) actions were in taking away everything Ameer was and everything he was ever going to be.”
The murder was precipitated by Sanchez’s stealing of Ameer’s new iPhone. When Ameer confronted him in an effort to get it back, Sanchez lured the boy to an isolated field in their Black Rock neighborhood, beat him, tied his hands and strangled him with his own shoelaces.
If anything, the savagery of the crime was heightened by the fact that both victim and perpetrator were barely more than children. But neither had much of a childhood.
Ameer spent his first 11 years in Iraq. As Finnerty explained, the threats of gunfire, bombing and explosives in the war-torn country meant that Ameer never was permitted to play outside his house. The danger escalated when an uncle worked for the American military, opening up the entire family to death threats from insurgents. With the help of a U.S. general, Finnerty said, the family obtained refugee status and, on Oct. 15, 2012, Ameer, his parents and his brother were on a plane to the United States.
On the flight, Finnerty told the court, “Ameer started crying. When his mom asked him why, he said, ‘I am so happy to go to America. I will be able to play outside.’ And for one and a half years, Ameer was able to experience American freedom here in Buffalo.”
The al-Shammaris worked hard to build a new future here, and Ameer worked hard, too. His parents were able to buy him a bicycle and then, when he was doing well at Waterfront School 95, they gave him the gift of the phone. He had the phone three days before Sanchez decided to steal it, and then took Ameer’s life.
While the murder stunned the neighborhood, the refugee community and the city, it was not as big a shock to those familiar with Jean Sanchez. He had been in a lot of trouble before.
Talking about the teen’s violent history, Finnerty said, “To cite just one example, at the time of the murder, the defendant was on Family Court probation for having stabbed another adolescent.”
The judge went on to fill in more of the teen’s disturbing background.
“At the age of 12 years old, you were adjudicated a juvenile delinquent,” DiTullio told the defendant, who stood before her with his head slightly bowed, his eyes half-closed. “You threatened to shoot a girl and set her house on fire. You took a BB gun to school, you took a paintball gun to school and an electric stun device.”
Those and other offenses resulted in multiple school suspensions. He also was caught distributing pornographic playing cards and engaged in cyberbullying, DiTullio said, and, after his homicide arrest, he was making shanks while in custody.
Nothing, however, compared to his “horrific” attack on an innocent boy.
“You are not a typical 13-year-old,” DiTullio said. “You have the mind of an adult – the mind of a criminal adult, calculating, devious and sadistic.”
The law limits the severity of the sentencing for adolescents, but the judge added, “It is this court’s position that you should remain in jail for a very long time. It is the only way to protect this community from a sadistic teen like yourself.”
An interpreter sat with the al-Shammari family in court to help them understand the proceedings. Finnerty said the family also had asked him to give the community its thanks.
“Despite all that Ameer’s family has lost, they wanted us to say how much they love America and its criminal-justice system. They have told us that our system of justice has treated them better than their own people would have back in Iraq.”
Defense attorney Paul G. Dell said after court that he intends to appeal the case. Two avenues of appeal were left open by the plea agreement: that the state law allowing 13-year-olds accused of murder to be tried as adults is unconstitutional and that DiTullio erred when she rejected defense motions in April to have the case moved to Family Court.