James McDevitt, the 23-year-old man who pleaded guilty to raping a woman in Flagler Beach in June 2013, was sentenced today to 40 years in prison Friday. He will be on probation for 20 years, and will be branded a sexual predator for the rest of his life.
“I find that this was indeed a crime of opportunity,” Judge J. David Walsh said, “the violence inflicted on the victim as she was struggling to get away and fight the aggressor was severe.” The victim, he said, “is not the same person.” The crime calls for the severest punishment, but the court, Walsh said, recognizes that McDevitt “is willing to accept his due punishment,” and has lacked a previous record. “It is clear that he has had no indications of violence in his prior history.” Still, Walsh said the court is concerned of the danger to the community should he be released in a short period of time.
McDevitt will have 715 days, or almost two years’, credit for time served, as he’s been at the Flagler County jail since June 2013. With good behavior, he can be released after serving at least 85 percent of his sentence. Having served already two years, his prison time may, in effect, be 32 years, and his release, albeit on probation, would take place when he is 55.
The prosecution had asked for life in prison. His sentencing score sheet showed a minimum recommended sentence of a little over 10 years in prison.
The sentencing at the end of a two-hour hearing before Walsh followed nearly 90 minutes of testimonies for both defense and prosecution, including testimony from the victim herself, who spoke of having had her life robbed by the attack, and of a life since spent as if behind bars, in fear of the night, in fear of life in general, and in the grip of unceasing self-loathing. But testimonies also included that of McDevitt’s mother, Lisa McDevitt, who acknowledged that a grave crime had taken place, but nevertheless appealed to the judge to show leniency and to recognize that at times, “good people do bad things.”
McDevitt himself spoke briefly, apologizing. “That’s not the man I am,” he said, “and I hope that she’ll be able to get through everything and hopefully be able to move on with her life after this.”
The prosecution summed up the case by saying that there were no “disparities” in any of the evidence from the way the victim described the attack: it all “corroborates her testimony. The only disparity at all in this case comes from Mr. McDevitt himself,” the prosecutor said, after he was caught, “bloody-handed.” He claimed that the woman “wanted it” and that it was consensual. “There’s nothing more terrifying for a woman than being violently attacked by a stranger in the dark, pulled behind a building,” the prosecutor said, then raped while fighting for her life, “while being choked to the point of unconsciousness.” The victim finally gave up and prayed, and, the prosecutor said, had her prayers answered when a neighboring pastor, out to walk his dog, saw the attack and called 911.
The prosecutor countered what was repeatedly said earlier during family and friends’ testimonies: that the attack was “a mistake.” It wasn’t, the prosecutor said. It was an outright attack predicated by McDevitt’s continuous decisions to attack the victim, to rape her, to run away. “This is not a crime of passion,” the prosecutor said. “There’s something inside Mr. McDevitt” that allowed him on that day to drag the woman behind into a field and attack her “for his sexual gratification.” She described McDevitt’s supporters as upstanding members of the community who have long known him, but “no one ever saw it coming. There’s another side to Mr. McDevitt that’s a dark, violent, and sexually deviant side that allowed him to commit” the rape that night, the prosecutor said.
Noting the contrast between the victim, who sat virtually alone, and McDevitt’s large group of family and friends, the prosecutor said: “She sits here before the court today, alone.”
“It would be an absolute injustice to sentence him to a day less than 40 years in prison. And that’s not a made up number,” the prosecutor said. It’s the age of the victim, from whom, the prosecutor said, every day of her life has been taken away.
Michael Lambert, McDevitt’s attorney, summed up by pointing out the broad range of testimonies, from people of all ages, speaking to McDevitt’s character over his 21 years. He contrasted that with the 15 or 20 minutes of the night of the attack, which he described as “an egregious” crime, for which he had no explanation. He also proposed no excuses, and said his client understood he’d be branded a sexual predator, with all the probational rigidities that go along with the designation. “Something horrific happened that night, and again there’s no excuse,” Lambert said. “But I see some good in this young man,” he added. “What happened is not who he is.”
The hearing followed the familiar pattern of sentencing hearings, when a shattering crime’s consequences are exposed in their sharpest and closest contrasts between those who suffered the crime and those who are paying its price: not just the perpetrator of the crime, but his family and his friends. At no other time in such proceedings are the two sides of a crime brought into such an unusually intimate if controlled setting, their persons and emotions facing each other in a contest for a judge’s ruling. Though Walsh at the end of the testimonies, and before the sentence, admonished all to maintain decorum, the caution was unnecessary: McDevitt’s family and friends were heartbroken but calm.
“We’re all suffering, one way or another,” the victim said in an interview after the hearing, “me and the family. They don’t see the dark side, but as a mother I know—you don’t want your child to go through something in life like that.” She would later stress that “his family is in my prayers.”
The victim walked into the courtroom at 10:03 with Flagler Beach Detective Liz Williams. She wore a black dress and a fractured expression as she took a seat in the foremost bench, on the left side of the courtroom, with Williams to her left and Flagler Beach police officer Rainey to her right–the two officers who have been involved in the case from its first moments. She was within 25 feet of McDevitt, and in the same room with him, for the first time since the rape. She almost immediately struggled to hold back tears, and sat clutching herself in the manner of someone with stomach pains.
The courtroom audience was split: a nearly empty left side, where three reporters, the victim and a few others sat, and a right side filled with members of McDevitt’s family and friends, including his mother, Lisa McDevitt.
Soon after the hearing began, the 40-year-old victim was called to testify first. She spoke to the judge and read from a statement as she stood in front of him at the center podium.
“It’s very important to me,” she said, of testifying, collecting herself. She then described the morning of the rape. She said she’d been out with friends that night and had decided to walk on the beach, where she felt safe doing what she’d always done in “my little town,” as she described Flagler Beach. She was approached by McDevitt, whom she’d never seen before. Brutal and repeated attacks followed, including him strangling her and causing her to pass out several times. “I thought I was going to die, I knew I was going to die,” she said. “He savagely raped me in both my mouth, my vagina.” She said she bit his face purposefully, convinced that she was going to die. The reason: she thought that would leave a mark, and his DNA in her teeth, as an identifier of her killer. She said she’d seen it done on TV.
Then she described her life since the attack: She says she has nightmares, tremendous headaches, digestive stomach issues that leave her continuously sick. “I am emotionally unwell, I live in fear, I hate the nighttime and dread its arrival every single day,” she said, her voice broken throughout. She doesn’t feel safe, feels “constant anguish, dread and sadness,” and lives every day as if she is going to jump out of her skin, her self-esteem broken. She described her self-loathing since the attack. “I am broken, and James McDevitt broke me,” she said. McDevitt, sitting a few feet to her right in his orange jail jump suit, looked ahead. She said that the life she’s known has been shattered, that she has had her life stolen from her, and that she feels as if she’s always behind bars. She asked the court to put McDevitt away likewise for the rest of his life.
When she was done, the Assistant State Attorney Christina Opsahl, the prosecutor, showed her an image of her underwear and the scene where she was raped. She showed her photographs of herself, and of her injuries after the attack, specifically twigs and grass from the lot that were taken from her body when she was examined.
“Was Mr. McDevitt violent with you the entire time?” Opsahl asked.
“Yes,” she said.
“Did you fight the entire time?”
“I tried,” she said.
Michael Lambert, McDevitt’s attorney, asked the victim a couple of questions about whether she’d spoken with a Flagler Beach police officer and spoken to anyone in a white van before the incident, but did not press further. The prosecutor then played the full 911 call that Rob Tier, who lives across the street from where the rape took place, placed at 3 a.m. that morning of June 14, 2013. Tier is heard describing what he at one point surmises is a rape. The prosecution then rested.
At 10:36, Lambert began calling the defense witnesses, starting with Cheryl Massaro, 61, the director of the Youth Center on the campus of Flagler Palm Coast High School and a friend of Lisa McDevitt, who is the director of the Flagler Auditorium. She spoke of knowing James McDevitt for a decade, as a student, as an employee, and as her niece’s boyfriend for a year. McDevitt, she said, “has accepted his responsibility here. He said he made a mistake, he made a very big mistake,” but it was the mistake of a young life. She urged the court for lenience.
Mary Suzanne Hutton, who works for the department of health, spoke of knowing him for years, of his helpfulness, of her respect for him. “He’s a well mannered young man,” she said. “It was a mistake one night, and he is owning up to it.”
Pastor Charles Silano, who works with drug court and runs the county’s largest food pantry, was next: it was at the food pantry that McDevitt and his brother and others would volunteer two or three times a week for a couple of years. Silano has visited McDevitt several times in jail. “This is sad for all parties involved. He’s admitted to this egregious act. My concern is that he would have some kind of life” after prison to “reboot.” He described his act as “a really stupid decision” as he asked for mercy. “James from what I’ve seen of him, this is not something which is, I’ve never seen this to be a part of his character.”
The prosecutor declined to ask the witnesses any questions.
Other witnesses who’ve known McDevitt over the years–several former fellow-students and friends, family friends, people who knew him through Flagler Palm Coast High School or the Flagler Auditorium, people he babysat–lent their descriptions of McDevitt as a helpful, respectful, positive, polite person, always willing to help. His best friend, Amanda Elkins, 22, described him as “kind-hearted, sweet, generous, he’s always been there for me.” She described the rape as “a big misunderstanding, a mistake.” That word recurred with almost every witness: mistake. At one point Lambert asked the the large group of friends and family if anyone else wanted to speak on McDevitt’s behalf. One man rose his hand and echoed previous testimonies, but with more emphasis on McDevitt’s good judgment, especially among younger people. He would be the one to keep others from making mistakes, his friend said.
It was then the close family’s turn to speak.
John McDevitt, his father, was first. (He and Lisa McDevitt had four children, with James one of their twins. The McDevitts are divorced.) “There was a period of my life where I had to go and get fixed, I was kind of running crazy for a while,” he said, when asked how often he saw his son. But then he described how he “always told him to be a gentleman,” and how his son never showed anyone hostility. “He doesn’t deserve this. Wrong time, wrong place, it happens to a lot of people,” he said. “He’s a good man, he’s a better man than I’ve ever been,” he said, describing himself as “messed up” when he was his son’s age. (James McDevitt wept when his father spoke, bending his head to his shackled hands–which he could not raise to his face–to wipe tears.)
John McDevitt, his 23-year-old twin, then spoke. “Me and my brother have never been apart, this is the longest we’ve been apart,” he said, and in all those years, he said his brother never showed “aggression toward a female.”
Lisa McDevitt, 54, was last to speak. She described being a single mom for most of her children’s lives, to whom she’d devoted her life after her marriage broke up. (The couple over the years had separated, reunited, then divorced.) “We were always a very close-knit family when you have children that way,” she said. “My children have always been surrounded and I surrounded myself by very good Christian people with good values.” She paused, had difficulties speaking, repeatedly said, “this is my son.”
She then addressed Judge Walsh directly: “My son chose to take the plea, his fate is in your hands, he is a good, helpful, caring, respectful, kind soul. I’m not exactly sure what happened on June 13, 2013, I pray for the victim” and for everyone in the room “because it’s tough for everybody today.” She said he was charged for “a horrible crime,” but sometimes, she said, “good people make bad choices. It doesn’t mean they are bad. It means they are human.” She appealed to the judge as well as to the “gray areas in the law,” and asked for leniency. “James is rehabilitatable, he will come out of the system being the person that he is, good, helping others.”
James McDevitt also submitted a letter to the court that he’d written Thursday. The court also acknowledged receiving an email from Bill Delbrugge, the former school superintendent, now a school director in Egypt.
Testimonies ended at 11:20, when the judge asked for a 10-minute recess, following which he would hear closing arguments and impose sentence.
In an interview with the victim after the hearing, she spoke about her life since the rape. “It hasn’t been repaired. I’m, struggling in relationships with a man and with family,” she said. She’s been going to therapy, but struggling with day-to-day living. “I can’t work. I’m lucky if I can come out of my house.” At night, she fears flashbacks to the point of not being able to walk her dogs. It’s a little easier in the daytime. She credits the Flagler Beach police staff-Detective Williams, Officer Rainey, and Sarah Hopper, the victims’ advocate—for helping her make it to this point. “They encouraged me to keep my head up—I can do this.”
But, she added, “I’m carrying the shame of other people that know me, and my family, that this happened to me,” she said.
Originally from Upstate New York, she’s been in Flagler for 25 years. She declared herself satisfied with the sentence, “I think it’s fair,” she said. She is thinking of different ways of helping other people get through what she went through.
Williams, the detective–who went through an ordeal of her own the morning of the rape, as she tried to ensure that the victim was examined in a timely manner and in protective settings–said: “We all were seeking, the state as well, life, because as Christy says, not only the life she knew taken, past, present and future, her whole life is impacted. So in an Old Testament, biblical sense, an eye for an eye would have been nice, but I think that 40 years is generous of the judge considering, like he said, his age and his lack of criminal history. I’m very satisfied with 40 years. I think [the victim] feels safe that by the time she reaches that age and he’s reached that age, whether he’d be eligible for release, he’s going to continue to be monitored, and she feels comfortable that she’ll be safe, and the community will be safe. That’s been a big issue of hers, that she doesn’t want this to happen to someone else.”