17-year-old Dharminder Sen was sentenced in 4th Judicial District Court Thursday morning. On Count 1, Murder in the First Degree for the August 26, 2009 shooting death of Robert Ernst, Sen was sentenced to Life Without the Possibility of Parole.
On Count 2, Conspiracy to Commit Aggravated Burglary, and on Count 3, Aggravated Burglary, Sen was sentenced to 20 to 25 years, each to run consecutively to the Life sentence. The three sentences are identical to what Dennis Poitra, Jr. received last October.
Present in the court on Sen's behalf were of course his attorney, Tim Cotton; his mother, Audrey Borghaiinck of Nebraska; and his great aunt, Janet Reckard of Sheridan.
Also present were several family friends of the Ernst family. Notably absent were any members of the Ernst family; Linda Ernst and her daughter Ann Ernst were out of town; Lisa Ernst Knox lives in Chandler, Arizona.
The proceedings lasted about ninety minutes. Cotton called Dr. Rhonda Dillinger, a mental health expert with the Wyoming State Hospital to the stand to review for the Court the brain development of a fifteen-year-old – Sen was a month shy of his 16th birthday at the time of the crime.
She provided a litany of Sen's adolescent history that she said was not necessarily a cause of, but definitely an influence on, his behavior. Cotton asked her if Sen was a good candidate for maturing and receiving rehabilitation to the point that in years to come, he might become a productive member of society. She said, “yes.”
Cotton also argued that Sen was very remorseful for what he had done, and that in the time he's spent with Sen, he can see in his eyes and hear in his voice that he is sorry and very scared.
Cotton also asked Sen's mother to take the stand. She tearfully read a letter she had prepared, saying that “this defendant is my son Dharminder; born to me when I was just 16. He saved me from myself” to the detriment of his own life...
She said that Sen was a kind, loving sweet and funny little boy, but when he entered his teen years, things turned bad. She told the Court that Sen started getting into trouble with the law, and tried to get him help, but she said that law enforcement in Nebraska told her that “unless he does something really bad, there is nothing we can do. Then he came here, broke the law, took a life, and now there are consequences that must be paid...”
Sheridan County Attorney Matt Redle, prosecutor for the State, then went before Judge John Fenn and argued that from 2007 until the shooting in August 2009, Sen had been adjudicated as a juvenile on several felony crimes, including a car theft in Nebraska and shoplifting after he'd moved to Sheridan. For the former, he'd been placed on three years probation.
And while incarcerated in the Sheridan County Detention Center, Redle said, Sen has gotten into altercations with other inmates.
Redle went on to say that while Sen's defense had testified during his trial that Sen had been influenced by Dennis Poitra, Jr., the testimony of Linda Ernst, Poitra, Jr. and third co-defendant Wyatt Bear Cloud were all consistent that Sen had declared to Bob Ernst, “I'm going to shoot you, you ****ing old man.”
Redle said that despite Dr. Dillinger's list of what had influenced Sen's past, the Court must consider “how he is now, not how he might have been.” And regarding showing any remorse, Redle said “The defendant does not show regret for his actions,” but has self-pity.
Judge Fenn said that he was greatly struggling with his final decision, because of Sen's age. Redle reminded the Court that it was Sen who had acquired the gun; it was Sen who brought the gun into the plan; it was Sen who was the trigger man. Redle said, “We would all like to give juveniles second chances in life, but there are some actions that have warranted further consequence.”
Judge Fenn said that on the one hand in making his decision, he would be looking into a “crystal ball” over many decades in order to determine whether Sen would be rehabilitated.
Conversely, he said, looking at the law – life means life in Wyoming unless commuted by the Governor and a Probation and Parole Board – if he were to sentence Sen to Life (leaving an open door for possible commutation), those deciding parties would have the advantage of looking at Sen's prison record and whether he had become rehabilitated.
Redle responded by saying, “At the end of the day, the Court should look the defendant in the eye and tell him 'You have forfeited your right to participation in society.'”
This response disturbed Cotton, who on redirect said that there is a vast difference between a 19-year-old and a 15-year-old. Cotton also countered Redle's comment about inmate altercations at the Detention Center, saying that at 15, Sen was sent to an adult jail and has been “picked on” by the older inmates.
Cotton said he agreed with Judge Fenn's reference to a crystal ball, and indicated that Sen has already changed and matured in the last two years. Cotton said he was confident that given the small window of hope in being given a Life sentence, Sen would grow and mature into a responsible society member, but if that hope were removed, he'd have no incentive to change.
Judge Fenn responded by saying that "since Sen pulled the trigger, why should he be afforded a different sentence than Poitra, Jr.?" Cotton replied, “It boils down to the susceptibility of Sen's age. That in itself is enough to offer that glimmer of hope.”
Cotton also asked Judge Fenn to consider merging the 20-25 year consecutive sentences on Counts 1 and 2 and making them concurrent to the Count 1 sentence, stating that if the Court does choose the Life sentence but keeps the other two consecutive, that would slam the door back shut on that glimmer of hope.
And the final issue addressed dealt with restitution. Cotton disagreed, according to state law, that Sen and the other defendants be required to pay for a new security system for Linda Ernst after-the-fact of the crime. He said, however, that he had no issue with restitution being paid for the money stolen from the Ernst home and for the replacement of the screen that was cut, through which the three defendants gained entrance into the home.
Just before handing down the sentence on the three counts, Judge Fenn said he would defer his decision on the restitution amount.
It was apparent to those gathered that Judge Fenn did not reach his final decision of Life Without the Possibility of Parole lightly and without struggle. He took a lengthy pause before handing down the sentence. After dismissing Court, Sen left the courtroom with slumped shoulders; his mother Audrey stood outside the courtroom, tears streaming down her face.