Richard Thomas, 17, whom prosecutors say set agender teen Sasha Fleischman’s skirt on fire last year, pled no contest last week to felony assault with an enhancement of inflicting great bodily injury — a deal that carries a seven-year prison sentence.
Fleischman, who attended Maybeck High School in Berkeley at the time, was riding an AC Transit bus Nov. 4 of last year when the incident occurred. Using surveillance footage, police identified Thomas, then 16, as a suspect. The Alameda County District Attorney’s Office charged him with counts of aggravated mayhem, felony assault, inflicting great bodily injury and hate crime enhancements.
In a plea agreement Thursday, the aggravated mayhem charge with a hate crime enhancement was dropped.
“Hate crimes are extraordinarily difficult to prove,” said Barry Krisberg, senior fellow at the criminal justice program of the UC Berkeley School of Law. “A jury trial in this case would have been very difficult. What we see here was a plea margin that was reached, which will bring the crime down to a different level. It was somewhat ambiguous whether or not it was truly motivated by hatred … or if it was merely a prank.”
Fleischman, who does not identify as male or female, suffered second- and third-degree burns, spending nearly three weeks in the hospital. Since the incident, Fleischman’s parents have publicly expressed their unease about Thomas being prosecuted as an adult.
On Nov. 14, Thomas will be sentenced to seven years in state prison. According to the plea agreement, a judge will review his conduct at the Division of Juvenile Justice in February. If at the division he shows progress in programs, his conduct will be reviewed again prior to his 18th birthday. If Thomas again demonstrates progress and good behavior, his sentence will be modified to five years in state prison.
“He deserves to be punished but not destroyed,” Krisberg said. “What we have here are prosecutors who have enormous discretion under current California law, but they’re not experts in sentencing or in human behavior. They spend a lot of time catering to the crowd.”
David Gonzalez, children youth and families programs manager at the San Francisco LGBT Community Center, said it is important for the legal system to have serious penalties in place to protect individuals such as Fleischman. He said the sentence “made sense as a structural system to protect minority rights” but noted it might be extreme for this case. Gonzalez also highlighted the importance of restorative justice in disenfranchised communities.
“There was a lot of communication between (the suspect’s and victim’s) parents — two marginalized communities coming together is a sort of justice,” Gonzalez said. “To come up with a mutual way of forgiving and taking accountability for the actions and moving forward is so important.”