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Utah boy, 16, fighting 1-to-15-year prison sentence

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Cooper Van Huizen

By Jessica Miller

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published May 25 2014 01:01AM
Updated May 25, 2014 04:44PM

The slender 16-year-old is kept alone in a maximum security cell at the Utah State Prison.

It’s small and cold, he said. A camera constantly films him.

He has gone a week without a shower and quickly learned to keep his window flap closed, so he would not hear mentally ill inmates talking to themselves — which upsets him.

How did South Ogden teen Cooper Van Huizen end up in the "Uintah 1" facility — the same unit that houses death-row inmates, gang members, and other high profile offenders?

On May 7, he stood before Ogden’s 2nd District Judge Ernie Jones to be sentenced after pleading guilty to two second-degree felony robbery charges.

The teen and his parents thought a plea deal would shield the boy ­— who has no prior criminal history — from a potential one-to-15 year prison sentence.

But on that day, Jones told the teen that the 180 days in jail recommended by attorneys and Adult Probation and Parole was "too soft" for his crimes, and sent the boy straight to prison.

"No, please, no, please," the teen cried as bailiffs handcuffed him and led him from the courtroom while family members sobbed.

Now, Van Huizen and his parents are fighting the sentence, saying they did not receive solid legal advice from the boy’s defense attorney. A new defense attorney has asked Jones to reconsider the sentence and allow the teen to withdraw his guilty pleas.

The crime • On Nov. 19, a group of teen-aged boys — the youngest of whom was Van Huizen — entered a Roy home, and held two people at gunpoint. According to one victim’s statement to police, one teen pointed a gun at his face and demanded money, cell phones and his stash of marijuana.

After the victim was ordered to lie on the floor on his belly, "I thought I was going to get shot in the back of the head," he told police.

Van Huizen admits he brought two of his father’s unloaded guns to the robbery, but attorney Elizabeth Hunt contends in court filings that he was not the one who pointed a gun at the victims.

Jones said during Van Huizen’s sentencing that there was evidence the teens were planning six similar robberies. But Hunt argues there is no evidence implicating her client in that planning.

"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 declaration filed Tuesday. "... My judgment was impaired by my use of marijuana."

The deal • Van Huizen was initially charged in juvenile court, but after a preliminary hearing, juvenile court Judge Michelle Heward sent the case to adult court.

On Dec. 24, the teen was charged as an adult with two counts of aggravated robbery and one count of aggravated burglary — all first-degree felonies with a maximum penalty of up to life in prison.

Van Huizen’s mother, Mindy Van Huizen, wrote in a court declaration that she was told by defense attorney Roy Cole that if her son took the plea deal, he would be eligible for a 402 reduction­ — which would reduce the felonies two steps to misdemeanors, once he completed probation.

But Hunt called this agreement "illusory and illegal," arguing that there was no guarantee the judge would grant probation.

The teen took the plea deal in March, pleading guilty to two lesser second-degree felony counts of robbery. At sentencing, Cole focused his statements more on allowing the teen to serve any potential jail time over the summer so he could finish his studies, than on trying to avoid a prison term.

"I believed there would be no prison sentence," Cole wrote in a court declaration filed last week, noting that "a 402 reduction cannot follow imprisonment."

"We were completely shocked," father Marc Van Huizen told The Tribune on Friday. "We were amazed… 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."

Marc Van Huizen said he believes a fair resolution would have been keeping his son in juvenile court and allowing him to spend a year in a juvenile detention facility.

"He’s 16 years old," the father said. "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 wanna-be street-wise little kid."

Cole said Thursday that he did tell Cooper Van Huizen’s parents that "there was always the chance" that their son could be sent to prison. But the attorney noted that a co-defendant, 17-year-old Joshua Dutson, took the same plea deal and Jones sentenced him to 210 days in jail.

And another teen involved in the robberies, 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 expecting [at most] 210 days," Cole said of Van Huizen’s sentence. "When the judge came back with two 1-to-15 [concurrent prison sentences], we were more than shocked."

The cases of another two teens are still pending in 2nd District Court, according to court records.

A Weber County juvenile prosecutor did not return a call seeking comment.

Prison • No hearing date has been set on Cooper Van Huizen’s motions. Meanwhile, he hasn’t been allowed to see his parents due to prison orientation rules, he wrote in a court declaration, and he’s worried about his dog.

"I am scared to death," his father said.

"If by chance my son was not in the protective facility — there are rapes that go on out there. My son would become a toy for those other men … That’s what’s really scaring him. Not to mention his future. He made one mistake. If there is anybody worthy of a second chance, it’s him."

Prison spokeswoman Brooke Adams could not verify the teen’s claims that he was being held in the Uintah 1 unit, citing safety and security reasons. Adams did say that the teen was in a single-inmate cell as of last Wednesday and has been checked regularly by medical and mental health staff.

"The plan is to move him when appropriate," she said, "to a smaller county jail or other suitable housing within the Utah State Prison or the Central Utah Correctional Facility in Gunnison."

Adams said that Van Huizen is one of 18 juveniles who have been sent to the prison since 2009.

jmiller@sltrib.com Twitter: @jm_miller

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