If not for the chains around his charcoal grey suit, 17-year-old James Hight could have been mistaken for a teenager in his Sunday best as a deputy escorted him into a Pennington County courtroom on Friday for his manslaughter sentencing.
Hight — although technically still a youth — faced an unmistakably adult future when Presiding Judge Craig Pfeifle sentenced him to 40 years in prison with 10 suspended for first-degree manslaughter, a sentence more than twice the number of years he's been alive.
First-degree manslaughter has a potential of life in prison, but it's unconstitutional for a juvenile to be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Originally charged with second-degree murder in adult court because of the severity of the charge, Hight struck a plea deal with the state in January and admitted to shooting 19-year-old Jayden Russell in the head with a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver on Nov. 28, 2021.
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Hight, who was 16 at the time, illegally bought the gun earlier that day from an adult in a Taco Bell parking lot, Deputy Pennington County State's Attorney Angela Shute said at the sentencing.
According to the state, four young people — including Hight and Russell — were in a bedroom at Hight's home on Tamarack Drive in Rapid City when Russell was killed. The group was drinking and smoking marijuana. One of the witnesses said just Hight handled the revolver in a game of Russian roulette, and another said both Hight and Russell handled it, according to Shute.
What's undisputed is Hight pointed the gun at Russell when it fired. Russell's attorney said at Hight's change of plea hearing his client was trying to lower the hammer of the gun when he accidentally shot Russell in the head. Russell was the father of a four-month-old baby when he was killed.
In a letter — read by Shute to the court — Russell's best friend said she got a call that he had killed himself, which was one of Hight's initial accounts of the incident. As the investigation continued, it came out that Hight had been the one holding the gun.
Russell's uncle, Mike Pioche, told Hight he may have avoided a life sentence because of his age, but Russell's friends and family will serve a life sentence without him and his son will live a life without his father.
"I will forgive you one day, but today is not that day," Pioche said.
Russell's mother, Yvette Feather, said, "my grandson is going to grow up only knowing his father through pictures and stories."
Feather said she knew she wasn't the only mother in the courtroom hurting, referencing Hight's mother, but she was "the only mother that had to see my son in a casket."
She said 40 years, which is what the state said they would recommend in the plea agreement was "enough time."
"You took something so precious, and out of foolishness," Feather said. "If I had been there, I would have taken that bullet."
Hight spoke on his own behalf and said, "There is no way to apologize for what I've done because what I've done is unforgiveable.
"I know I have a lot of growing up to do and a lot of maturing to do," he added.
The words didn't appear to resonate with the judge, who said he was concerned Hight recognizing the seriousness of his actions was about "presenting a face to me."
The teenager was on juvenile probation at the time of the shooting, something the judge found significant.
"James, you were given those opportunities (for rehabilitation) in the juvenile system in our county," Pfeifle said.
Shute also said Hight had issues during his time at the Western South Dakota Juvenile Detention Center, which included making threats, having medication prescribed to other detainees, and getting several new tattoos, which is considered self-harm.
Hight's attorney, Matthew Kinney, said he was "not surprised at his actions at JSC," considering the circumstances.
"I'm happy to note there's been improvements," Kinney said, which included Hight obtaining his GED.
While the state and the judge doubted the sincerity of Hight's remorse, Kinney said his client has not had a "flippant attitude" and the shooting, "registers in his soul," referencing the fact Hight has been diagnosed with PTSD from the shooting.
"I believe there is remorse. I believe there is daily suffering," the defense attorney said before ultimately asking the court for a sentence of five or 10 years.
Hight will serve the first portion of his sentence in a juvenile facility before being transferred to the state penitentiary in Sioux Falls.
Contact Shalom Baer Gee at firstname.lastname@example.org