Daniel Soares Da Costa is now 27. Today, he could have been sentenced to a prison term long enough to see him through his early 60s for preparing a Molotov cocktail and setting fire to two locations on either sides of a Publix in May 2020.
Instead, because of the magnanimity of Circuit Judge Terence Perkins, Da Costa’s own recovery from addiction since, his counselors’ glowing testimony of his efforts and even a probation officer’s recommendation against either prison or jail time, he got less than a year at the local jail, if with strict house arrest and probationary conditions after that and an admonition from Perkins not to stray an iota from the path Da Costa is on.
Perkins had clearly struggled with the sentence. He didn’t want to undermine the gains, the sobriety and apparent help Da Costa was now providing other addicts at a recovery house. But the judge didn’t want to impose an “illegal sentence,” either, shirking his responsibility to punish a crime, and a very serious and violent one at that.
“So I’ve given you the opportunity to show you’re not the firebomb throwing maniac, to show that you can be responsible, that you can be law-abiding, that you can be a good citizen,” Perkins told Da Costa, who was in the courtroom alongside his attorney, Mark Dwyer. “So I’m expecting when you come out, you’ll continue down that same road. Your progress up to this point has been exemplary. So I don’t want you to think I haven’t seen that. But please understand that I have in my back pocket 35 years. You violate your probation, you come back to me for sentence and you face up to 35 years, okay? Right. I wish you the best of luck. I sincerely do.”
Because of the nature of testimony allowed–less controlled by rules of evidence, much less confrontational and often less clinical–sentencing hearings can be more revealing than trials of the human, inhuman or irrational dynamics behind a criminal act. In a violent act that ended up hurting no one but exposing a man’s addiction to himself and his–until then–clueless family, it also reveals one of those rare instances when recovery can work, at least for now, opening a window into a local treatment center’s work. It puts a name and a life behind the steeliness of police reports. And it reveals how the court system isn’t necessarily the dogmatic, impersonal monolith it is sometimes assumed to be–how even prosecutors and the judge attempt to balance their responsibility to punish with acknowledgement that the system shouldn’t undermine a human being’s earnest rehabilitation.
This morning’s two-and-a-half hour hearing was on such sentencing.
Da Costa has lived in Palm Coast since he was 14–a nurturing, Catholic environment his mother described as “a European family with lots of loving, caring.” (The Da Costas are of Portuguese extraction.) He had his first drink when he was 16. He started smoking pot daily after that, and from age 17 to 18 did mushrooms and LSD. It was cocaine and Xanax after that.
An only child, he’d finished high school and was attending Daytona State College, thinking of a career in law enforcement. He was taking care of his father, who was ailing from, then dying of, a severe form of Parkinson’s at the family’s home on Pretorial Lane in Palm Coast. His father died four years ago.
“I thought this happened because of me,” Da Costa said, speaking from the stand toward the end the hearing. He wore a dark suit and a dark tie, as if at a funeral. His mask was black. His tone reflected his dress. “I thought he passed away because of me. Which is insane, but that’s what I believed at the time. And I took care of him. And it just seemed like it wasn’t getting any better. You know, I would have to leave work to pick him up off the floor. I’d have to, you know, take care of him when he was in the bed. I didn’t like to see my father like that. He was a very strong man, very stoic kind of guy. Seeing him like that pretty much destroyed me from the inside out and I didn’t know how to process it.”
His mother tried to steer him toward grief counseling therapy. He refused, turning to more drugs and drink. She had no idea he was an addict and a drunk. He had effectively hidden his addiction from his family. On a particular Mother’s Day, a year before the firebombing, he’d been ugly to his mother. “My mom wanted to help me and I didn’t want her to help me, I wanted to do it by myself,” he said. “I just remember being really mean to her, said some obscene things, things that no mother wants to hear from her son.” He became “rebellious, moody,” disobedient, his mother recalled. He would disappear days at a time.
The night of May 19, 2020, he mixed Xanax and Portuguese beer from home, and filled a bottle of Super Bock with a dish rag and gasoline–a Molotov cocktail.
Shortly after midnight, the 911 center got a call about a homeless man setting a fire behind the Citgo station. Not long after that, another fire started on the other side of the shopping center and the Publix store off Belle Terre Parkway. A witness identified a “homeless man” as the person who’d started it. Da Costa was briefly pulled over in his car–he’d hidden his license plate with cardboard–and released when deputies converged on the second fire. Surveillance video led back to him.
He was arrested and charged with two counts of second-degree arson and a count of possessing a firebomb. He was jailed for 29 days and released to house arrest, and subsequently admitted at St. Johns Recovery Place, an addiction treatment center, then at Palm Coast Recovery Center, an in-patient center on Cypress Point Parkway in Palm Coast.
Zach Miller, a co-owner of the center who handles all the clinical services there, described Da Costa a meek, troubled soul when he entered the program on July 31, 2020. He was “extremely hurting and unable to grieve for the loss of his father,” with few social skills, Miller said. .
“The vast majority fail” the program, Miller says. “If I can help change one out of five people’s lives, my job is worth it, and I feel like that’s a pretty high expectation number.” In that context of defeats, he described Da Costa as an exception. He fell in the “top 5 percent” of successes.
He made it through the program and now works at the center, sponsoring several men and helping them through the process. He is never late, and is presented to others as an example of recovery’s potential. “One of our best staff,” Miller said of Da Costa. “So there’s no question that his willingness to be a better man far outweighs the majority that I see on a daily basis. There’s zero question about that at all.”
Justin McCue, the co-owner at Palm Coast Recovery, echoed Miller’s perspective. “He is like a living and breathing example for my other clients that come in the door of what you can do in the face of adversity,” McCue said. (Both McCue and Miller are recovering addicts, sober a dozen years.) Da Costa now has a healthy relationship with his mother, and works every day with sponsors or others. “All those things are amazing and those are hard to find nowadays.” McCue added: “It’s what you do in the face of those things that really defines us as human beings.”
“So if he were to be able to continue working with you and your organization, do you feel that that would be good for the community, and for Mr. Da Costa?” Dwyer asked Miller.
“There’s zero question,” Miller said. “Like we’ve talked a lot about this, me and my partner just said, and we’re like, it’s going to be hard to replace him.”
Assistant State Attorney Tara Libby at times asked McCue the sort of magnanimous questions that DaCosta’s attorney might have asked in the circumstances, suggesting clearly signaling that the prosecution was not keen on having Da Costa imprisoned: “You and Mr. Miller have been doing this for quite some time,” she asked McCue. “Do you feel that if the court were to send Mr. Da Costa to prison, would that set him back in his recovery?”
Unquestionably, McCue said, “it would.” And no, he told Libby after she followed up, he would not be able to continue helping him if he were imprisoned.
Since recovery, his mother said, he’d become loving, responsible and “getting close to me again,” she said. Libby asked her if he’d always had the extended family’s support system before the fires. His mother said he had. The question, and the answer, pointed to the risks of relapse.
To Da Costa’s aunt and godmother, “This is a wake up call to me because I would never think this would happen to our family, and it did.” She was alluding to Da Costa’s addiction–and the need for treatment. “By him going to jail I don’t see how that’s going to help him to continue in the good pace that he’s doing and the success that he’s having.”
Da Costa was last to testify. He had only vague recollections of his arrest and his first days at the county jail. He took responsibility for his acts, however.
He denied ever having bad feelings toward Publix, where he’d worked for five years, as had been alleged. He said he loved the company. “I wouldn’t be lighting things on fire and building a bomb if I was in my right state of mind,” he said. “I’d like to mention that I’m thankful that nobody got hurt in the incident. Without that happening, I don’t think I would have ever realized that I had a problem with drugs and alcohol.” He described his recovery, struggling still with his father’s loss but finding methods to work through it, among them returning to his Catholicism and relying on support groups. He momentarily struggled on the stand to find his words in apparent efforts to control his emotions.
“I feel like I disrespected the community,” Da Costa said. “I was raised here. I moved here when I was 14. I was raised here, pretty much the community has been nothing but good to me. And I feel like I’ve in one way, one form or another, brought harm to the community by doing that, by scaring people, by making them not feel safe. If I could take the day back I could but there’s no time machine.”
He is no longer interested in law enforcement. He wants to find a career in psychology and therapy, and help others not go through what he did. “Truth be told,” he said, “I don’t want anybody to feel the way that I felt when my dad passed because I brought that on myself. I didn’t know what I was doing but I did it, and I don’t want anybody to suffer that kind of grief the way that I did.”
“You do realize that they were people inside the building, inside the Publix building, during the time the fires happened,” the prosecutor asked him.
“Yes, I was made aware of that today,” Da Costa said.
“And had law enforcement in the fire department not responded when they did, two if not more buildings could have been burnt down because of your actions.”
Only then the defense and the prosecution made their arguments.
The law sets out sentencing guidelines. The judge may apply what’s called a “downward departure” from the guidelines, meaning a lesser sentence. But even the departure must be grounded in law. It may not be arbitrarily imposed.
Dwyer of course angled for a complete departure: no prison time, just probation. He argued for what even Probation Officer Stephanie McKinney of the state Department of Corrections recommended to the judge: that Da Costa be sentenced not to prison but to two years of community control (or house arrest) followed by three years of drug-offender probation, with a GPS device strapped to his ankle the first six months, plus the requirement of at least two narcotics anonymous meetings per week and a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew.
Libby argued that “voluntary intoxication is not a defense.” She said Da Costa voluntarily, willingly drank the alcohol and mixed it with the medication” the night of the incident. He may not have been in his right mind, but “Mr. Da Costa put himself in that position.” He waited to ensure that the fire was burning well, “so to say that it’s not sophisticated, it’s absolutely sophisticated,” Libby said, describing how Da Costa has gone as far as covering his own license plate, knowing that the city has license plate readers. Libby saw no mitigating factors. But tellingly, she neither recommended a sentence nor set a minimum sentencing floor. That’s unusual, and an indication of a wish for punishment, but not harsh punishment.
Then it was up to Judge Perkins.
“This is a different case than what we were looking at at the very beginning,” Perkins said. “When this case came through the door, this was a multiple-decade prison case because of the basis of the allegations. And through the hard work of the attorneys and frankly Mr. Da Costa himself, the composure of this case has changed significantly.”
The fact that DaCosta had no prior criminal history played in his favor. “Is this a firebomb throwing maniac, or is this this somebody that was doing a once in a lifetime, unexplained irrational act?” Perkins asked. The difference between the two answers guides the case. At the same time, Perkins said, “I can’t ignore my statutory responsibility,” which includes punishment. The bottom of the guidelines, the minimum prison sentence set out, was 46 months. He took account of the probation officer’s recommendation. “Her opinions come to this court with great weight, however Officer McKinney doesn’t get to make the sentencing decision,” Perkins said.
But in fact he largely went with that recommendation, with the exception of the imposition of 364 days in jail–a day less than what would have been a state prison sentence.
The judge explained in detail why he placed such importance on that one day’s difference: “The reason I chose the jail sentence in this case as opposed to a prison sentence is because with the extent of the family history he has, the extended family members who obviously care a lot about him or he wouldn’t be here… I wanted him to be local, so that he could maintain regular contact with his family in that regard. And I also wanted him to be able to maintain contact with Mr. Miller and Mr. McCue, where I expect he’ll continue a more long term relationship.”
In another sign of magnanimity, the judge gave Da Costa 14 days to report to jail to begin what will be an 11-month sentence, since he has accrued almost a month’s worth of credit. The allowance comes with two conditions: that Da Costa shows up at the jail by 5 p.m. on Sept. 17, “not 5:01, not 5:10,” and that he remains sober until then. “If you violate either of those two conditions, the deal is off, and you can face up to 35 years, are we clear on that?” the judge asked.
Da Costa was clear.
By hearing’s end, it wasn’t inconceivable that, should Da Costa make it through his probationary period, he would be one of a keynote speaker at one of Drug Court’s future graduation ceremonies.