A federal judge went well under sentencing guidelines Thursday when he sent a man to prison for four years after he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder for the 2014 starvation death of his two-month-old son.
Federal sentencing guidelines — which take into account factors such as mitigating and aggravating circumstances, the nature of the crime and previous criminal history — recommended that Darwin Wade Red Cloud, 26, spend 17.5 to 21.8 years in prison. He could have been sentenced to life in prison.
But Judge Jeffrey Viken sentenced Red Cloud to four years in prison — a decision he admitted was a "very substantial" variance from the guidelines and may upset people. He sentenced Red Cloud to five years, the maximum, of supervised release after prison.
Sarah Collins, assistant U.S. attorney, called Viken's variance from the guidelines "too extreme" and said the sentence undervalues Red Cloud's crime, which he committed when he was 20. She said she would have been fine with a sentence in the lower end of the guidelines, but asked Viken to go no lower than 15 years.
Viken said there was "no excuse" for Red Cloud's actions, and it's "hard to comprehend" how neither he, the child's mother nor any of the other adults who spent time with the infant realized he was emaciated. He admitted that if he only focused on the photographs of the infant — Collins described them as showing "every bone" — his emotions would overtake him and he would have harshly sentenced Red Cloud.
But Viken, who said he thought about the sentencing for hours, said the case was more about recklessly disregarding the life of another. He also said this case is different from other child abuse and starvation cases that often involved aggravating factors such as physical abuse or taunting children by hiding food from them.
Collins said she'll always remember the "horror" of the photographs and asked how Red Cloud couldn't have noticed that his son needed food and did nothing about it.
The child was born in good health at the hospital in Pine Ridge on Aug. 20, 2014, and weighed 4 pounds, 8.4 ounces — significantly less than his birth weight — at the time of his death on Oct. 11, according to a statement of facts document signed by Red Cloud.
An autopsy found that the infant’s body exhibited “gross changes compatible with emaciation/dehydration,” was “markedly thin,” and had protruding ribs and somewhat sunken eyes, the document says. The doctor said the child's decline would have been apparent to anyone who had constant interactions with him.
Collins said many people with experiences similar to Red Cloud — a doctor found he has cognitive disabilities and his lawyer said he had no father figure in his life — are able to successfully raise children.
She also reminded Viken that Red Cloud was originally facing more serious charges before the plea deal: first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence; felony child abuse and neglect; and sexual abuse of a minor, which would have required him to register as a sex offender.
Collins said Red Cloud knew the mother of his child was underage, and Viken said she was dealing with a manslaughter, not murder, charge. The status of the mother's case was not mentioned.
Betsey Harris, Red Cloud's lawyer, asked for a sentence less than the guidelines. Placing her hand on her client's shoulder, she said he accepted responsibility, was cooperative with investigators and was "so sorrowful" about the loss of his son.
She said Red Cloud didn't understand what it meant to care for a child and now realizes he should have asked for help. Harris said while Red Cloud is responsible for the death, she questioned why none of the more mature adults acted and pointed to society's lack of education for young parents. She also said there was little food in the home, even for the adults.
Red Cloud said he was "sorry" for his actions, regrets not paying more attention at the time, and knows he can do better in the future.
Kaitlin Catches called her cousin a "good man" and asked Viken for leniency. She said Red Cloud helped raise his siblings and her child, who was born soon after his own. Catches said Red Cloud always wanted to be a father since he didn't have one.
Speaking after the sentencing, Catches and other relatives — who held happy, healthy looking babies — said they never noticed that Red Cloud's child was underweight and starving. Heather Poor Bear, Red Cloud's aunt, said the infant was small since birth.