After an emotional sentencing hearing on Thursday, Judge Douglas C. Phimister sentenced defendant Wesley Ronald Hampshire, 18, of Placerville, to seven years in state prison for the killing of Matthew Martin Steele, 20, of Auburn.
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Hampshire previously pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was facing a sentence of four to seven years in prison.
In the audience were the family and friends of the two youths, who sat on opposite sides of the courtroom with five to six deputies in the courtroom keeping a watchful eye.
Reviewing the case, Phimister said that the killing occurred on Jan. 16 when a group of young people drove to Placerville to visit Hampshire. They wanted their money back from a heroin purchase he made for them, accusing him of selling heroin that was “not up to standard.”
Steele was in the group, although why he was there or what his role was remains unclear.
“Few know what really occurred,” said Phimister, noting the contrary testimony from witnesses. But “there is very little information that Matt knew what was going on.”
When they arrived at Hampshire’s house, he offered to buy them more heroin, although Phimister said it was the group’s intention to rob Hampshire. As they were driving away, the conversation became more heated and the driver stopped to let Hampshire out. Steele exited the car first to allow Hampshire to get out. That’s when the stabbing occurred, with Hampshire pulling out a knife and stabbing Steele in the chest.
As witnesses and residents tried to keep Steele alive by administering CPR, Hampshire fled the scene. He returned to his house, took off his clothing and hid it, along with other belongings, and then disposed of the knife so the police wouldn’t find the evidence.
Meanwhile deputies were called to the scene about 4:10 p.m. Steele was later transported to Marshall Medical Center where he was pronounced dead at 6:24 p.m.
Rather than go to trial, in September Hampshire pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter.
The judge noted that Hampshire was a drug dealer and an addict who had made certain choices that led up to the crime. On the other hand, Steele’s part in what happened was unclear, with the judge saying that the young man may have simply been “in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
In considering the length of the sentence, the judge noted that the defendant took the weapon with him when he got in the car and he clearly planned to make a sale of more heroin. In addition, the defendant’s performance while on probation was unsatisfactory. However, a mitigating factor was that Hampshire had acknowledged his wrongdoing.
Considering all the circumstances, the judge said his tentative decision was to give Hampshire the maximum sentence of seven years.
Sides weigh in
Arguing against the longer sentence was Hampshire’s attorney Adam Weiner, who said his client was devastated when he learned that Steele had died. He showed remorse, said Weiner, and never tried to justify what happened, although that’s of little solace to the families. At least two individuals in the group intended to take money away from Hampshire, said Weiner, and that would have required force. “I don’t know what Matt’s role would have been, but he knew of the plan,” Weiner said. On that basis, the attorney asked the judge for a lesser sentence.
Arguing for the longer sentence was deputy district attorney Jamie Verwayen, who said Hampshire was a heroin dealer who was prepared to facilitate another sale. She also asked why he took a knife with him. He got in the car because he wanted to make $200, said Verwayen. He brought the knife and was prepared to use it because he was afraid of being beat up. The defendant escalated the situation to one of deadly violence even though there is no indication that Steele threatened him, she added. He stabbed Steele in the chest, showing extreme disregard for life. He then removed his clothes and hid them and threw the knife in the creek. The aggravating factors outweigh the mitigating factors, she concluded.
Family members speak
Members of both families then got up to speak, while those in the audience sobbed in the background. Linette Collins, mother of Hampshire, said it was a horrible tragedy for both families but she was proud of her son for taking responsibility for what he had done. There are no completely innocent parties in the situation, she said, adding that Steele and the others were addicted to drugs. With time and more evidence there would be more clarity as to what really happened, she continued, maintaining that Hampshire’s drug problem was short-lived and he was not a drug dealer. That was not his occupation, she insisted. He was frightened and in a life-threatening situation.
“I hope you can accept his regret with time,” she said, adding that, “our family grieves for your loss as well as our own.”
Then Hampshire spoke on his own behalf, saying he took full responsibility for Steele’s death.
“It was a terrible accident and I am truly sorry,” he added.
Hampshire’s remorse was reaffirmed by the jail chaplain, John Cowper, who said a lesser sentence would allow Hampshire to lead a better life once he’s released from prison.
Last to speak was Lisa Steele, the mother of the slain youth. Accompanied by her 10-year-old daughter as she addressed the judge, Steele asked that Hampshire be put away for the maximum amount of time. Describing what her son meant to her and her daughter, she said Hampshire made a conscious decision to kill her son. She noted that she celebrated her son’s 21st birthday at his gravesite.
“My 10-year-old daughter shouldn’t be in therapy,” she said, adding that “we’re different people now since Matt’s murder.” Asking for the maximum sentence, she said that “anything less is injustice for the family.”
After listening to the families, Phimister responded to some of the testimony by saying there was no evidence that Steele used or sold drugs. He also said there was no evidence that Hampshire was using heroin, although he was selling it.
“He chose to go with them, chose to arm himself, and had money to pay them,” concluded the judge.
With that Phimister sentenced Hampshire to seven years in prison, less time served, plus over $18,000 in restitution.
These are incredibly difficult cases, added the judge, saying the case involved the needless taking of someone’s life for $50.
Contact Dawn Hodson at 530-344-5071 or [email protected] Follow @DHodsonMtDemo on Twitter.