Justin Schweiger received the most severe sentence of the four former Walt Whitman High School students sentenced so far in connection with the March 2006 robbery of a Bethesda Smoothie King.
Schweiger, who was found guilty by a jury of conspiracy to commit robbery in November, was sentenced in Montgomery County Circuit Court by Judge William J. Rowan III on Jan. 23 to seven years’ imprisonment, with all suspended but 30 days in jail and four months and seven days’ home confinement.
“I have specifically done that and extended the period of house arrest so that there is going to be no Spring Break, no graduation parties, no prom parties, no Beach Week, no graduation, no nothing,” Rowan said.
In three years, provided Schweiger completes his probation without incident, Rowan said, the court will strongly consider striking his conviction. Rowan acknowledged Schweiger’s intelligence and general potential as a student-athlete.
But Rowan was troubled by Schweiger’s description of the offense in the presentence report; in it, Rowan saw a failure by Schweiger to accept responsibility for his role in the offense. In light of Schweiger’s juvenile adjudication for theft of a credit card, and an argument he had with a woman in his neighborhood while on probation last summer, Rowan felt Schweiger needed to learn a lesson he wasn’t getting.
“This is not the end of your life. It may seem like it is to you, at your age, and at this time period. This is doing something, and then accepting the responsibility and the punishment for it,” Rowan said.
Assistant State’s Attorney Tom DeGonia, who prosecuted each case related to the Smoothie King robbery, argued that Schweiger should serve an active period of incarceration. “This isn’t just about him; it’s about the community; it’s about how we deal with this type of case, how these circumstances are meted out,” DeGonia said.
“The prosecutor, myself, your defense lawyers, your mother, actually everybody in this room wants you to succeed on this. We don’t want you to fail. In a way, we failed our job,” Rowan continued. “All right, good luck to you.”
Alexander Krouskas is the final codefendant whose case remains unresolved. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to conspiracy to commit robbery, and he is scheduled to be sentenced on this Thursday, Feb. 1.
JUST BEFORE Schweiger was sentenced, Rowan invited him to speak. “I would like to say how deeply sorry I am, to my mother especially, my family, my friends,” Schweiger said. “I’m extremely embarrassed to be speaking in front of the court like this today. I just want this to be finished; I want it to be over; I want to move on.”
The only other time Schweiger spoke at the sentencing hearing was in response to a yes-or-no question from Rowan.
Schweiger’s defense attorneys Gary Diamond and Daniel Steven called several witnesses to testify at the sentencing hearing. In August, Montgomery County Public Schools transferred Schweiger to Rockville High School. At Schweiger’s sentencing, Rockville High Principal Debra Munk testified that Schweiger received straight A’s last semester and complied with the rules at school. Mark Maradei, Rockville’s varsity football coach, said Schweiger was a model student-athlete.
“On every level, on every level, he is the type of person that any parent would be proud of,” Diamond said.
Acknowledging all Schweiger had in his favor, Rowan said several times, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”
“What confounds the adults, people like myself that have looked at this case … is that you were a leader in the group. You had big-time grades,” Rowan said. “You were not some nerd who, you know, was struggling to get by and didn’t play athletics. I mean, you had it all going for you. But somewhere along the line your moral compass somehow has gone on tilt.”
Everything that Schweiger’s mother told him, the schools told him, and everything he’d gotten A’s for, Rowan said, “You just tossed it out the window.”
SCHWEIGER WAS the only one of the five codefendants who went to trial. The jury found Schweiger not guilty of conspiracy to commit armed robbery with a deadly weapon, but guilty of the misdemeanor offense of conspiracy to commit robbery.
At both the trial and at the sentencing hearing, Diamond and Steven, Schweiger’s defense attorneys, argued that Schweiger did not participate in the execution of the crime.
“There was no evidence … of an active involvement by Justin Schweiger in this case,” Diamond said. He moved for Schweiger’s case to be transferred to the juvenile justice system for sentencing, a motion Rowan denied.
Diamond said that Schweiger’s version of events was similar that of codefendant Thomas Ashley, whose charging document was amended in juvenile court as an accessory after the fact, said Diamond. According to trial testimony, Schweiger waited with Warren’s girlfriend and codefendants Ashley and Patrick Lazear in Warren’s car, which was parked by Bethesda Elementary School, while Warren committed the robbery.
Schweiger’s description of this part of the offense, as written in the presentence report, troubled Judge Rowan. As read by Rowan at Schweiger’s sentencing, Schweiger said, “Robert got out of the car to go do something.” Schweiger said Warren later returned and told those in the car that he had just robbed Smoothie King. “I regret not [leaving] the car after Robert informed us that he had committed a robbery,” Rowan read from Schweiger’s account.
“Now the whole tenor about what this boy says is ‘I didn’t know anything about this until after Robert came back to Bethesda Elementary School and let us know he robbed a Smoothie King,’” Rowan said. “That is an absolute lie! Look at it; read it yourself.”
DeGonia also argued that Schweiger demonstrated an unwillingness to accept responsibility for his role in the offense.
“In Mr. Schweiger’s circumstance, it is largely about accountability. Is he accountable for his own actions? Has he demonstrated to the court that he is personally responsible? And I think the court has pointed out a lack of willingness on his part to be personally accountable,” DeGonia said.
AFTER ROWAN sentenced Schweiger, he admonished Schweiger for failing to realize the impact the crime could have on the rest of his life.
“All you needed to do was have the strength to walk away from the damn thing,” Rowan said. “I recognize that at your age, and at that time period in your life as a junior, sometimes it’s hard to walk away from the Ashleys and the Lazears, and your buddies you’ve grown up with. But that’s what maturity is about.”
Judge William J. Rowan III on Jan. 23 sentenced Justin Schweiger to seven years’ imprisonment, with all suspended but 30 days in jail and four months and seven days’ home confinement. In November, a jury found Schweiger guilty of conspiracy to commit robbery.
Schweiger’s jail sentence was equal to that of Robert Warren, who at his October sentencing hearing, testified that he entered Smoothie King with a mask and a replica handgun and demanded money from the clerk. Warren, however, was sentenced to three months’ house arrest and two years’ probation.
“I’m not worried about what happened to … the rest [of the codefendants]. I’m not handling those cases,” Rowan said.
Schweiger’s sentence also included 100 hours of community service, joint responsibility with his codefendants for $463 in restitution and three years’ probation.
As a special condition of the probation, Schweiger may have no contact with codefendants Patrick Lazear, Alexander Krouskas or Thomas Ashley.
Rowan specified that Schweiger is to have no contact with Warren, his father or his girlfriend, all of whom testified for the state in Schweiger’s trial. “There are to be no threats, directly by you or indirectly by any of your associates,” Rowan said.
Just as Rowan considered the timing of Schweiger’s house arrest, so did Rowan consider the timing of probation. Schweiger could have completed three years of college by then, and may be applying for a job or graduate school. With probation successfully completed, Rowan said, Schweiger could request the court void the conviction.
“I’m not out to ruin this young man’s life, and I’m not going to ruin this young man’s life. He’s going to get a chance, a second chance, because this is his first adult offense. But he’s going to also serve some punishment, and hopefully learn from this,” Rowan said.