On February 23, Michael Shoemaker, 20, was sentenced to one year in jail and three years probation for his part in a fatal knife fight at Paradise Valley Mall in 1995.
His accomplice, Gregory Acevedo, went to trial in 1997, and was sentenced to consecutive sentences of six years in prison for killing one youth, and seven and a half more years for stabbing another. Acevedo is Mexican-American; Shoemaker and the victims are white. The length of time it took to bring Shoemaker to justice and the disparity in the two men's punishments have prompted Acevedo's attorney, Al Flores, to declare racism.
"From the very beginning, this case had severe racial undertones," says Flores. "I can point out to you cases where there are guys driving down the street in South Phoenix, pulling out weapons and firing them indiscriminately. But you know what? They're not hurting any white people up at Paradise Valley Mall, and so they get probation, they get five years, three years.
"I'm not saying that's right or wrong. What is wrong is when a sentence is based on the color of the skin of the people who are involved, either as defendants or as victims."
Ironically, one mitigating factor in Shoemaker's relatively light sentence is that his victim's mother asked the court to send Shoemaker to therapy and not to prison.
Shoemaker, then 17, and Acevedo, then 16, both students at Moon Valley High School, had gone to the mall with another friend named Tommy Lopez. In the mall food court, Lopez literally bumped into a group of basketball players from Shadow Mountain High School. Words were exchanged, and the boys agreed to take the argument outside.
Shoemaker was punched by a youth named Patrick McCarville, and he responded by stabbing McCarville in the side, piercing his liver. Acevedo squared off with another named Danny Richardson, whom he stabbed in the chest and killed, and then he stabbed Richardson's twin brother Paul, who was being held in a headlock by Lopez. As the three athletes lay bleeding on the sidewalk, the other three youths fled in Lopez's car. Acevedo and Shoemaker were arrested days later; Lopez was never charged.
The incident rocked the normally placid neighborhood between Shadow Mountain High School and PV Mall, a mostly white, upper-middle-class enclave unused to violence that, at the time, was still grieving yet another teen murder.
McCarville and the Richardsons had been eyewitnesses just three months earlier when a Shadow Mountain basketball player named Ryan Winn had been shot to death at a beer party after punching a gangster wanna-be named Chris Colombi.
Then, when lightning struck for the second time, the neighborhood erupted in community meetings, questioning the outside influences that could have led to such deadly outbreaks. The high school invited motivational speakers to counsel students on how to deal with rage. The mothers of the victims campaigned vigorously to change state law so that minors who commit deadly crimes would automatically be tried in adult court. Tempers raged.
"The parents at Acevedo's sentencing were so mad at him, when in fact, if they'd looked at themselves and the way they raise their own kids, maybe--in a perverse sense--they're partly to blame," says Flores.
The victims--McCarville and one of the Richardson twins--had been drinking, and they had thrown the first punches in fights against much smaller opponents. The opponents, however, were carrying weapons.
None of the boys had been in serious trouble before, and all of them might have grown into responsible, productive men if they hadn't been waylaid by boyish posturing and dog-sniffing territorial marking. One of them died; two of them suffered the physical and emotional wounds of the stabbings; and one of them went to prison. One was never charged. And one evaded punishment for three and a half years.
Acevedo went to trial in 1997. Flores was able to work Acevedo's murder charge down to negligent homicide, which earned him a sentence of six years in prison. But the prosecutor argued that Acevedo stabbed his second victim more in cruelty than in self-defense, and also that he had shown no remorse for his actions during the trial. Subsequently, the court sentenced Acevedo to seven and a half more years for aggravated assault, more than the presumptive sentence. At the time of his sentencing, he had already spent 236 days in jail.
"By all reports, this kid had a bright future ahead of him," says Flores. "He was intelligent. He was going to school. He was doing well. He had never ever had any problem with the law. And he had a knife; unfortunately, he had a knife."
Shoemaker, on the other hand, was released on bail, went to live with relatives in the Seattle area, finished high school as an honors student and attended at least one year of college. His attorney was able to delay his trial for three and a half years and ultimately struck a deal to lower the charge from aggravated assault to endangerment, which earned him one year in Maricopa County jails.
Shoemaker's case benefited by the delay in his trial. His attorney, Michael Black, capitalized on hazy memories and re-remembered testimony that emerged not only in Acevedo's trial, but also in an unsuccessful civil lawsuit in which the victims sued Paradise Valley Mall. "Which, when you combine them all, significantly weakened the state's case," Black says, "because we had conflicting statements of the witnesses, which weren't available to Acevedo."
New information that could have been detrimental to Shoemaker was apparently judged by prosecutors too weak to build a case on. The dead youth's blood was found on Shoemaker's pants--which might have been spattered there in the confusion--and on his knife--which might have gotten there when Shoemaker's knife was commingled with Acevedo's, right before Acevedo's stepmother, a former police officer, washed them off.
Furthermore, in a deposition for the civil lawsuit, Paul Richardson claimed for the first time that he'd seen Shoemaker striking or stabbing his brother Danny after Acevedo had finished with him. That assault was never corroborated by witnesses.
Prosecutors say the facts justify the disparity in sentences. "By all the eyewitnesses there, McCarville jumps Shoemaker and hits him a couple of times before Shoemaker finally responds and stabs him," says Bill FitzGerald, spokesman for the Maricopa County Attorney's Office. "Acevedo is responsible for killing someone and stabbing someone in the back who is fighting [with someone else]."
And with time, even the rage has cooled. Shoemaker's victim, Pat McCarville, now 20, says, "I'm really not too angry with him anymore, but you've got to be accountable for stuff you do. It's a light sentence, but it's still tough to do."
Of the disparity between Shoemaker's and Acevedo's sentences for the assaults, he adds, "Six years' difference--I don't know."
McCarville's mother, Theresa, takes a more passionate stance, which has estranged her from the mothers of the other victims.
"One of the worst days of my life was walking into that court and seeing Acevedo, 16 years old, standing up there and bawling like a baby," she says. "It was tragic. He was a little child going into the mall, and within three minutes his whole life changed."
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She didn't want the same to happen to Shoemaker, even if he did stab her son. On his behalf, she asked the court for leniency, a year's imprisonment and intensive probation supervision. Shoemaker's presentencing report notes that Theresa McCarville worried that without such treatment, Shoemaker could become a dangerous person.
"I'm very glad that Michael [Shoemaker] went to school," she told New Times. "I don't want him to be another statistic going back to prison. I want him to succeed. I want him to be a valuable part of society.
"Acevedo's life is over."
Contact Michael Kiefer at his online address: email@example.com