Matthew Lathram, a juvenile when he accidentally killed 15-year-old Nicholas Shomaker, has been sentenced as an adult to 65 years in jail, with all but 25 years suspended, for involuntary manslaughter and six felony drug and gun charges.
Circuit Court Judge James H. Chamblin disregarded pleas to have Lathram, who turned 18 in August, spend all or part of his sentence in the Juvenile Detention Center. The judge said the defendant had acted like an adult so he should be treated like one. He said the harsh sentence served notice to area teenagers as to how Loudoun County residents view drug and gun violations. "They don’t like drugs and they don’t like the killing that comes with drugs," he said.
A TALE OF TWO tragedies unfolded during a six-hour hearing last week, beginning with Lathram’s childhood that was fraught with physical and sexual abuse, and leading to the shooting death of Shomaker and the grief and devastation Shomaker’s death caused his family.
Both teens lived in Ashburn.
In tears, Lori Shomaker clutched her son’s baby sweater and spoke of the anguish in losing him.
Witnesses testified how Lathram "fell through the cracks" after Social Services removed him from his mother’s home, and after authorities failed to heed a warning that he needed intensive therapy to deal with his years of abuse and neglect.
Chamblin, looking directly at Lathram, acknowledged that the defendant’s father abandoned him when he was 3 years old, and his mother failed to protect him from two of her abusive boyfriends.
"I certainly understand that you have not had the best life, Mr. Lathram," the judge said. "I think this all started with your parents, Mr. Lathram. Your parents let you down."
Lathram’s father, Milton Lathram Jr., testified he failed to be a father for his children, despite requests from a doctor and his father-in-law.
SENTENCING GUIDELINES for Lathram’s crimes did not fit the circumstances, Judge Chamblin said. Lathram’s attorney, Alex Levay, responded. "I was shocked and appalled that the court would sentence a juvenile offender to 25 years in prison, which was almost 10 times the recommended guideline sentence for adults," he said.
The nonbinding Virginia Sentencing Guidelines are based on a statistical computation of sentences handed down in similar cases. The purpose is to have equity in sentencing across the state. In this case, the guidelines recommend a range with a midpoint of two years and four months. The felonies carried a maximum of 95 years and a mandatory minimum of two years in jail.
Commonwealth Attorney James Plowman asked for 35 years in the Adult Detention Center. "We hope this sends a strong message to the community, to parents and to teens about the dangers and consequences of this type of criminal behavior and the serious consequences that will follow," he said.
LATHRAM WAS CHARGED with murder in the March 22, 2004 shooting. Although he was jailed in the juvenile facility, a judge ruled he must be tried as an adult.
In a plea agreement in August, Plowman agreed to dismiss one count of murder and use of a firearm in a commission of a felony in exchange for Lathram’s guilty plea to seven felony charges, including involuntary manslaughter and possession of guns, drugs and stolen property.
Virginia abolished parole in 1995, but Lathram could serve as little as 85 percent — 21 years and three months — of his sentence if he earns good behavior. Prisoners, on an average, serve 90 percent of their sentences, Plowman said.
Chamblin, referring to testimony during the hearing, described Lathram as a person who was out of control and who thought the rules did not apply to him.
"No wonder you were Nick Shomaker’s mother’s worst nightmare when you came into his life," the judge said. "This was an unfortunate, sad, unintentional, accidental killing … for a young man who … had a lot of potential, whose life should not have been cut short."
The judge said he might have sentenced Lathram to the Juvenile Detention Center if his only offense was involuntary manslaughter.
"This is not an accidental shooting only. It’s about six other things," the judge said. "When I see the cumulative affect, Mr. Lathram you are not a person in my opinion … that the juvenile justice system should take under its wing for rehabilitation."
Chamblin questioned Lathram’s remorse: If the teenager felt so bad about shooting his friend, then why did he sit in a deputy sheriff’s cruiser boasting of his criminal activity right after the killing?
WHEN THE SENTENCE was announced, Lathram’s sister, Audrey, burst into tears. As she rushed out of the courtroom, her father, who had abandoned Audrey and Matthew 15 years ago, reached out to console her. She told him to leave her alone.
Shomaker’s family and friends shed tears and embraced or stood quietly on the other side of the courtroom. Plowman and Lori Shomaker hugged.
"As far as I am concerned about the sentencing, no amount of time would have been enough," said her former husband, Kevin Shomaker. "The commonwealth attorney’s office did what they felt was the right thing to do, and Judge Chamblin took it from there."
Shomaker said his son’s family and friends will suffer the rest of their lives. "Nicholas was a caring and loving person who made some bad choices and it cost him his life," the father said. "Hopefully this tragedy will open the eyes of other young kids who think guns and drugs are cool."
At the beginning of the hearing, Lori Shomaker solemnly read a prepared statement detailing how the slaying had traumatized her personally. She held the paper in her left hand and placed her right hand on her heart. "Matthew killed my child and my buddy," she read. "A part of me died that night."
She said Lathram had inflicted a lifetime sentence on all who loved her son. "It is a struggle everyday."
She said the slaying has had a troubling effect on her other two sons, Colby and Jordan.
"It is the ‘neverness’ that is most painful." She described that as the realization that she will never hear him laugh or feel his hugs again. And he will never to grow up into the "fine man he would have been."
Lori Shomaker said she is frightened all of the time. "I’m afraid everyday, afraid I’ll always see the sadness in my mother’s eyes, afraid she’ll always see it in mine, afraid the sentence will never fit the crime."
She said she is afraid every time there is a knock at the door or her children are gone for more than 10 minutes.
The mother said she feels she cannot get any relief from her pain, "even when I put on his sweat pants and T-shirt and lie in his bed to get as close to him as I can."
ABOUT A DOZEN PEOPLE turned out to support Lori Shomaker, and many cried during her testimony. Lathram’s sister, Audrey, a new mother, also wept.
Lori Shomaker, turning her sorrow into anger, looked at Lathram. "You’re the closest to evil as I have come," she said.
Lori Shomaker said her son was a friendly, caring boy who enjoyed eating out with his mother. That all changed after he met Lathram.
"I watched a boy who never said anything to hurt my feelings, never really hurt anything … turn to someone I didn’t know. I saw a side of Nick that I couldn’t comprehend," she said. "He was very mean sometimes, mean-spirited. He changed the way he walked. He changed the way he talked. He changed the way he dressed.
"He didn’t care about anything except being out, being away from home."
KENNETH BODNANA, an investigator for the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, testified that Lathram was a drug dealer who used drugs daily.
Audrey Lathram, who is 4-and-a-half years older than her brother, testified she went to live with her grandparents, who were named her guardians after authorities learned she had been sexually abused at her mother’s home by her mother’s boyfriend. Audrey Lathram said she and her brother were afraid of their mother’s boyfriend, who was eventually tried and convicted of sexual assault.
The mother blamed her daughter for the boyfriend’s incarceration, and reunited with him after he was released from prison, said Mary Lindahl, a forensic psychologist who provided therapy for the sister. "The mother was really furious at Audrey," said Lindahl.
Audrey Lathram turned to drugs as an escape and gave her brother his first marijuana joint when he was 10 or 11.
Audrey Lathram is turning her life around, Lindahl said. She no longer takes drugs, and attends college part time. She has held the same job for the past four years. She gave birth to a daughter in August.
Audrey Lathram said her brother has changed in the eight months since he was jailed.
"He is more emotional and religious. He cares about others, not just himself."
The sister testified that he was scared about the possibility of being sentenced to an adult prison. "He’s scared of being raped," she said.
Levay, Matthew Lathram’s attorney, said the chances of Lathram being rehabilitated in the adult facility would be threatened, because of the probability of rape.
James Loy, Matthew and Audrey Lathram’s grandfather, testified that he called their mother to ask for help after his grandson was arrested.
"She said I didn’t help pay for [her boyfriend’s] expenses when he went to jail, and I’m not going to help you with this one."
He said his grandson has expressed remorse. "He has a different outlook on life. … I think he is heading in the right direction, given the chance."
Loy said Matthew Lathram wants to visit Shomaker’s grave after he serves his sentence. "He has accepted blame. He knows he was in the wrong."
Lindahl, the psychologist, provided graphic details about the sexual abuse and beatings at the hearing. She described Matthew as a brilliant teenager with an IQ of 127 who also had a learning disability. She evaluated Matthew Lathram in 1997. "I felt like if he didn’t get any help, he was going to get in trouble," she said.
She predicted in 1997 that Matthew Lathram’s state of mind would "create a situation that is potentially dangerous for Matthew and for society" if he did not receive therapy and acquire a responsible adult in his life. "He really fell through the cracks. He did not have a solid relationship with an adult to help him," she said.
Lindahl said the defendant was overlooked, because he was not a violent child.
She said the grandparents tried to be good parents to Matthew. "He was damaged when he got there," she said, underscoring his ability to deceive them. "They didn’t see it."
Lindahl warned against putting him behind bars in an adult facility. He would not do well, because he spent his childhood feeling unsafe both physically and sexually, she said.
PLOWMAN SAID the charge of involuntary manslaughter, an unintentional killing brought about by a criminally negligent act, did not fit the crime. Lathram’s crime was "so gross or culpable that it indicates a callous disregard of human life and the probably consequences thereof." He pointed to the defendant’s juvenile detention behavioral report, which showed 20 infractions such as mocking and manipulating the staff.
Plowman questioned Matthew Lathram’s commitment to religion. "All of a sudden he believes in God. I hope it is the case," Plowman said. "It’s inconceivable that he can make such a turn around after years and years of this kind of behavior."
The commonwealth’s attorney said there has to be a balance between rehabilitation and protecting a community.
Levay drew attention to the "unspeakable acts" that happened to his client as a child. His mother condoned the physical and sexual abuse, according to Levay.
"Is that going to affect a child? Does he have a moral compass?" Levay asked. "That’s the environment he was growing up in. If you have no sense of belonging, what happens? Nobody wanted him."
He said his client was not a "monster." All the boys were posturing with the gun on the night Nicholas Shomaker was killed, and any one of them could have pulled the trigger, he said.
Levay asked Chamblin to let his client mature and receive counseling before "we send him off to the wolves" at an adult prison. "If we sent him to the adult prison, we are essentially giving up on him."
Matthew Lathram apologized, saying he wished he could change what happened.
"It is now something I have to live with the rest of my life," he said. "I just made a lot of bad choices. I hope you have mercy on me."