ROSWELL, N.M. >> A New Mexico judge rejected pleas for leniency Wednesday and handed down the maximum sentence for a then-12-year-old boy who opened fire in a Roswell middle school gym earlier this year, injuring two students.
State District Judge Freddie Romero ordered the boy, now 13, held in state custody until he is 21. His decision followed a daylong hearing in which the shooter apologized, the defense argued he was the victim of chronic bullying, and the two students wounded in the shooting detailed their permanent injuries.
"It’s a miracle that I’m alive right now," said 12-year-old Nathaniel Tavarez, who was shot in the face Jan. 14 at Berrendo Middle School. "My vision is still seriously impaired, but there is hope. I have conquered many things the doctors said I never would."
Special prosecutor Matt Chandler read a statement from the other victim, 13-year-old Kendal Sanders, as she stood at the podium with Tavarez.
Sanders wrote that she has more than 150 lead pellets in her body and might never be able to have children. The pellets cause lead poisoning and make her ill and tired.
"I have to see those scars every single day for the rest of my life," she wrote. "(He) will be able to live the rest of his life the way he wants, even have a family."
In May, the boy pleaded no contest to three counts of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and one count of carrying a firearm on school premises. His lawyers had asked that he be placed in treatment for two years and then be released if doctors determined he was no longer a danger. A defense memo said the boy was chronically bullied, is socially and emotionally immature, and regrets what he did.
"I’m very, very sorry," the boy said to Tavarez and Sanders. The Associated Press typically doesn’t identify juveniles charged with crimes.
The boy’s mother urged the judge to consider what her son had gone through.
"This is a child who was tortured and bulled on a daily basis. … I want you to realize that he is a child," she said. "I also want you to realize he has not stopped praying for Nathaniel and Kendal and (security guard Kevin) Hayes." Hayes received minor injuries.
But the teacher who helped Tavarez after he was shot called the incident a "very deliberate act of violence" and urged the judge to impose the maximum sentence.
Chandler, after the hearing, said neither of the victims were bullies.
"These are some sweet, caring, softhearted individuals that were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and for an individual, whether they’re 12 years old or an adult, to take out their frustrations on innocent bystanders is wrong any way you look at it," the special prosecutor said.
Chandler noted Nathaniel and Kendal are suffering the consequences of something that happened to the boy "perhaps weeks before this, months before this, but they are not the reason for the bullying."
"It’s something that needs to be addressed but certainly by no means by acts of violence," he said.
Chandler said the families of both victims were pleased with the verdict.
Sanders said she accepted the boy’s apology.
"He’s a really good kid that made a bad decision," she said after the sentencing.
Tavarez, however, said he is not ready to forgive "until God tells me to."