Chad Cordoma has had his issues since he was a teen–pot, alcohol, theft, innumerable traffic violations, a civil suit resulting from a crash that injured someone else, and numerous psychological disorders, including oppositional defiant disorder. He just turned 21.
The one thing he’s never had is sustained mental health treatment.
Last October, when he was 20, he sent his 18-year-old brother B.C. a couple of texts: “I’ll find you.” “I promise.” “You’re dead.” He sent him the picture of a gun. B.C. showed the texts to his father, D.C., who called 911–“in an attempt to get Chad the help he needs, not to send him to prison,” Cordoma’s father wrote in a letter to the court.
This afternoon, Circuit Judge Terence Perkins sentenced Cordoma to 13 months in state prison. Cordoma had been out on $8,000 bond and had come to court of his own, in his civilian clothes. He has a job, he’s soon to be a father. He asked for a “furlough” before getting processed for prison. The judge denied it.
The case was unusual in that both of Cordoma’s parents and his brother–the victim–had not wanted him prosecuted, though they’d been at their wits’ ends with his substance and mental disorders, which were causing him to make terrible decisions. “These poor decisions forced us to ask him to leave our home,” his father, a retired corrections officer, wrote. “This was done per the guidance of a mental health/addiction specialist, who informed us that we needed to stand our ground and keep him out of our house until he hit rock bottom. Unfortunately, he seemed to always be able to find people to enable him and his choices while under the influence. He had basically been homeless for the past 2 years and he had been attacked, robbed and taken advantage of on more than one occasion. It breaks our hearts, but we needed him to want to get help.”
Sheriff’s deputies showed up at a house on Pope Lane after the 911 call about the written threats and found Cordoma in the backyard, scrolling through his phone. He complied with their orders, and told them his gun was in his pocket. Being only 20 at the time, he was carrying a gun illegally. That got added to his charges.
“Deep down we were never in fear for our safety, this was a stupid argument between two siblings,” his father wrote the court. “The type of argument that just passes and the relationship goes back to normal.” He and his wife thought that calling the cops and lining their son up with a treatment option would resolve the issue. They’re not alone thinking, wrongly, that calling the cops is a way to more readily tackle a psychological rather than a criminal issue.
They’re not alone, having hardly any other options when their loved one is out of control. But Cops have to apply the law, and the law, since 2018, brooks no compromise with written threats. It is the result of the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School massacre, after which the Legislature wrote the law that makes it a second degree felony to threaten harm through written or electronic means, whether a gun is involved or not.
Perkins seemed willing to indulge the argument Josh Davis, Cordoma’s attorney, made: “I’m better off punching someone in the face in a bar than texting him that I’m going to do it, because that’s going to get me 15 years,” Davis said. He’s right. Punching someone in the face would likely be a misdemeanor.
“This is a different case without a firearm,” Perkins said. “This is a firearm case.” So he wasn’t willing to depart from the recommended sentence.
Tara Libby, the assistant state attorney who prosecuted the case, also summarized Cordoma’s history. “These are actions that have been culminating since he was a juvenile,” she said. Military school hasn’t helped. Previous treatment attempts haven’t helped. Even his parents acknowledge in their letter that he was refusing treatment even now.
“He should not have had a firearm to begin with,” Libby told the judge. “He comes before the court now, writing an apology letter that definitely shows he understand what he’s done, but we’re here for punishment, and after the punishment, then the treatment.”
Cordoma’s brief letter reflects the judge’s order since last October that he was to have no contact with his brother. He told him he’d never hurt him and apologized. “At the the end of the day you’re my brother and I love you more than words can describe. And I miss you, I miss having my built in best friend by my side and it’s been hurting me not having you around,” he wrote. “I know I haven’t been the best big brother, but I try. At the end of the day I would put my life in the line for you because you’re my family, my little brother and it’s my job to protect you, not to bring you harm.”
He’s been to jail many times before, never to prison, an entirely different experience–an entirely different subjection. But the letter isn’t unlike many letters or declarations individuals on the brink of a prison sentence end up producing in hopes of staving off the worst, though in this case–the letter was filed today–he was conceding that “I am ready to accept help and become the father, brother and son that I know I can be. I love you all very much, and I don’t want this one stupid thing to ruin my life, or ruin our relationship.”
Not enough, and too late, the prosecution argued: he’d had numerous appearances before the same judge who’d withheld adjudication on felony charges before, sparing him the branding of a felon. Not today.
“We see these [charges] with children in middle school and high school,” Libby said, referring to the slew of such second degree felony charges that have resulted from schoolchildren carelessly making even empty threats on social media. “Here we have a grown adult who makes a threat to his brother while presumably under the influence, and he needs to be punished, he needs to know there are consequences for his actions and the court is not going to allow this type of behavior to continue. I think prison followed by probation sends that message to him.”
Davis argued that Cordoma may be 21 now, but he still acts like a child. He did not see the difference between a 12-month sentence that would keep him at the local jail and a 13-month sentence that would trip him into the sordid, irreparably altering world of state prison. “Do we toss him away now or do we at least give him a shot to make it before we send him to state prison?” Davis asked.
Perkins adjudicated Cordoma guilty, and to Davis’s despair, sentenced him to the full 13.5 months, though in effect Cordoma will not serve more than seven months: he banked up 130 days’ jail credit, and he is eligible for gain time, or early release, that would knock out 15 percent of his sentence, netting about seven months. He will then have to serve 18 months on probation.
Perkins said he was not likely to make it past the prison system’s reception center–a prison where all newly sentenced inmates converge and are housed for months before they are classified and more permanently dispersed through the state’s gulag. But Perkins said he would recommend to the prison system that Cordoma be a candidate for the Residential Therapeutic Community program for people with substance disorders.
The courtroom was empty for the brief sentencing hearing, which took 35 minutes. As in any sentencing hearing, the defendant’s family and friends could have showed up and testified on his behalf in hopes to mitigate the sentence. None did. The courtroom was empty but for the usual personnel. Unusually for an attorney, Davis was briefly overcome after the hearing, drawing a concerned inquiry from Libby as they rode down the elevator.
Davis then stood at the foot of the courthouse as if grief-stricken, and thinking of the experience his client was about to have. “I don’t know, man. It’s like we just send everyone to prison, like that’s just the answer for everyone,” he said.