A lifetime ago — a lifetime for him, anyway — Jeremy Garner shoved his 83-year-old neighbor down the stairs, then killed her by beating her with two canes, a rock and several cans of food.
For that 1998 crime, Garner, then 15, now 33, originally was sentenced to life in prison.
Monday, he learned that he’ll get a new chance at life outside prison walls — perhaps by the age of 49 and no later than his 60th birthday.
Douglas County District Judge Thomas Otepka sentenced Garner, who already has served 17 years, to 60 to 80 years in prison for first-degree murder. Add his original sentences for using a weapon and false imprisonment — and Garner’s total is 67 to 90 years.
The term, which is cut in half under state law, means Garner will be eligible for parole when he’s 49; absent parole, he’ll be released when he is 60.
“We’re not here because of a change in the facts of the case,” Otepka said. “We’re here because of a change in the law.”
Garner is the sixth of 27 Nebraska juvenile lifers to be resentenced. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down automatic life terms for juveniles — ruling that judges must have the option of sentencing juveniles to a range of years. The decision, based on science that says adolescents aren’t fully able to comprehend consequences of their actions, didn’t rule out a life sentence. It just said judges must have the option of something less.
Garner’s attorney, Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley, said Garner clearly fit the guidelines of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling. At the time of Leu’s killing, Garner had an IQ in the 60s — borderline mentally retarded and roughly the equivalent of a third-grader.
He grew up in a home with parents who were both disabled, Riley said. He spent three years in first grade and had a hard time putting his shoes on the right feet.
“It does sully his ability to resist impulse and to think through a process of, ‘How do you handle anger? How do you handle frustration?’ ” Riley said.
Riley acknowledged to the judge that it was “completely perplexing that ... the person who incurs his wrath is the person who was gentle and caring to him.”
“It’s mind-boggling,” Riley said. “I don’t think anyone can explain it, including Mr. Garner.”
Leu, 83, had been nothing but kind to Garner and to other neighborhood children. Neighbors remembered her for always having a hearty wave — and being willing to hire neighborhood children for odd jobs. She often hired Garner to mow the lawn and clean her bathroom.
She baked cookies for the families of Garner and other neighborhood children.
Leu had lived in the impeccably kept house at 3374 Curtis Ave. from the 1940s until the killing on March 28, 1998, prosecutor Katie Benson said.
That day, Garner had confronted Leu — in part because she had blamed another neighborhood child for a break-in at her house. Garner also was seeking more money for the chores he was doing.
According to Benson, the deputy Douglas County attorney:
Garner shoved Leu down the stairs of her home. As she lay on the floor, Garner put plastic bags over his clothes and then searched for a murder weapon. He first tried a walking cane but soon figured out it wasn’t strong enough.
He then got another cane and beat her. He slammed her with a rock and several cans of food.
He retrieved a gas can but ultimately decided against setting her afire.
After killing Leu, he took her jewelry box, her wallet and a radio.
Benson noted that Garner acted alone and with premeditation, unlike other defendants who have been resentenced for crimes committed as juveniles.
“This was done under his control,” Benson said. “He thought about it. ... It’s clear what his intent was. These facts warrant a severe sentence.”
About eight family members showed up in support of Garner. Four of Leu’s family members sat behind Benson.
“I’ve read about this wonderful, innocent victim from her family,” Judge Otepka said. “The feelings (they’ve) expressed are understandable. All I can say is, I’m very sorry for your loss.”
Leu’s family members quietly wiped away tears as Benson recounted the crime. Son Don Leu’s eyes were red-rimmed as Benson noted that he found his mother that day 18 years ago.
At Garner’s original sentencing, Don Leu had said: “I don’t know if I can forgive him, but I will work on it every day.”
Monday, he declined to comment.
“I’m sorry,” he said outside court, holding back tears. “It’s just too hard.”