A 16-year-old Utah boy was sentenced earlier this month to up to 15 years in a maximum security prison after a judge changed the terms of a plea agreement.
Cooper Van Huizen pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree felony robbery for his role in a home invasion late last year.
The teen, who had no prior criminal history, and his parents believed the plea deal would result in 180 days in jail.
But District Judge Ernie Jones told Van Huizen at the May 7 sentencing hearing he believed the terms recommended by prosecutors and the probation board were “too soft” and instead sent the boy to Utah State Prison for one to 15 years.
Van Huizen cried and begged for mercy as he was led from the courtroom handcuffed in front of sobbing family members.
“He’s 16 years old,” said his father, Marc Van Huizen. “Some 16-years-olds are more mature than others, but Cooper is really soft and tender emotionally. He’s just a nice, sweet young boy, always has been. He’s not this rough-and-tough, wannabe street-wise little kid.”
The teen is being held in a cell alone to protect him from other prisoners at “Uintah 1,” which houses death-row inmates and gang members.
Van Huizen was the youngest member in a group of teens who went to home Nov. 19 and held up two people at gunpoint, seeking money, cell phones, and marijuana.
One of the victims told police he believed the assailants would shoot him after ordering him to lie down on his stomach.
The teens left with $10, a wallet, a cellphone and a bag of marijuana, police said.
Van Huizen admits he brought two of his father’s unloaded guns to the robbery, but his attorney said other teens pointed the guns at the victims.
The judge noted during Van Huizen’s sentencing that prosecutors uncovered evidence that the teens planned six similar robberies, but the teen’s attorney said no evidence linked him to the plot.
Van Huizen and his parents are fighting the sentence, saying their defense attorney failed to provide sound legal advice, and their new attorney has asked the judge to reconsider his sentence and allow the teen to withdraw his guilty pleas.
“As I look back on what I did, I recognize that I was reckless in trying to fit in with and please new people I did not really know,” Van Huizen wrote in a court document filed Tuesday. “My judgment was impaired by my use of marijuana.”
Van Huizen’s case was bound over in December to adult court, where he was charged with two counts of aggravated robbery and one count of aggravated burglary — which carried a possible life sentence.
His mother told the court that Van Huizen’s previous defense attorney said the teen would be eligible for a 402 reduction, which would reduce the felonies to misdemeanors once he completed probation, if he accepted the plea deal.
Attorney Roy Cole said he believed there would be no prison term, and he had asked the court to allow Van Huizen to serve his jail term over the summer so he could complete the school year.
But instead, the judge imposed the maximum prison term for the charges, although the teen’s co-defendant — 17-year-old Joshua Dutson — was sentenced by the same judge to 210 on the same plea agreement Van Huizen accepted.
Another teen involved in the case, 19-year-old Tomek Perkins, pleaded guilty to second-degree felony counts of attempted robbery and burglary and was sentenced in April to 180 days in jail.
“We were completely shocked,” Marc Van Huizen said. “We were amazed, (and) had I known what I know now, I would not have allowed my son to accept that plea deal. I’m the one who told him to do it. [I thought] we had the ability to put this all behind him.”
Two other teens’ cases remain pending, and no hearing date has been set for Cooper Van Huizen’s motions.
Marc Van Huizen said he believes it would have been fair to keep his son’s case in juvenile court and sentence him to a year in a juvenile detention facility.
“He himself now has complete remorse and regret, forever being a part of that situation and he wishes he could take that day back,” the teen’s father said.
Mark Van Huizen said he has not seen his son since his sentencing due to prison orientation rules, but fears his son will be raped or otherwise harmed at the maximum security prison.
A prison spokeswoman said the teen, who is being held alone for 23 hours a day, would likely be moved eventually to a county jail or another suitable facility.
“The mistake that he made — the first ever he’s made in his life — was a big one,” Marc Van Huizen said.