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(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) MIndy Van Huizen, left, leads a rally on the state Capitol steps on Tuesday for her 16-year-old son Cooper, who was sentenced to prison in May for robbery. The family fighting the sentence, saying they did not receive solid legal advice from the boyís defense attorney. A new defense attorney has asked a judge to reconsider the sentence and allow the teen to withdraw his guilty pleas.
Rally protests prison sentence for 16-year-old Utah boy
Armed robbery » Cooper Van Huizen to serve concurrent terms of up to 15 years.
First Published Jul 16 2014 12:23 pm • Last Updated Jul 16 2014 09:02 pm

About two dozen people rallied Wednesday morning in front the Capitol to protest a prison sentence imposed on 16-year-old Cooper Van Huizen.

The protesters, wearing white "Free Cooper" T-shirts, waved signs demanding Van Huizen’s release from the Daggett County Jail, where he has been since May 23. Before that, Van Huizen was in a cell at the Utah State Prison with a camera constantly filming him and the sounds of the mentally ill inmates muttering to themselves outside his cell.

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» Correction: An earlier version of this article said Van Huizen received consecutive sentences. They were concurrent.

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"My son is a junior in high school," Marc Van Huizen, Cooper’s 54-year-old father, told the Tribune. "To have his life entirely destroyed and to come out as a felon, I don’t see the fairness there."

"Prisons are not for juveniles," Mindy Van Huizen, 54, the teen’s mother, said as she waved her "Free Cooper" sign at passing cars.

Van Huizen’s sentence began May 7 when 2nd District Judge Ernie Jones ordered him to serve two concurrent terms of one to 15 years in prison for committing armed robbery.

The Van Huizens had urged their son to accept a plea deal that would have allowed him to serve 180 days in the county jail and, after a three-year probation, have his felonies reduced to misdemeanors. But Jones decided the plea bargain was too lenient for the crime to which Van Huizen had pleaded guilty.

According to a victim’s statement to police, a group of teenage boys, of which Van Huizen was the youngest, entered his Roy home on Nov. 19 and held two people at gunpoint. The boys demanded money, cellphones and a stash of marijuana.

The victim told police that, after being ordered to lie face-down on the floor, "I thought I was going to get shot in the back of the head."

Because Van Huizen was 16 and the crime involved the use of a dangerous weapon, the juvenile court decided he was a "serious youth offender" and sent him to adult court. Van Huizen thought he would receive a sentence similar to his co-defendants, Joshua Dutson, 17, and Tomek Perkins, 19, who were sentenced to 210 days and 180 days in jail, respectively. Instead, he received prison.

"I could write a book about why Cooper should have stayed in juvenile court rather than going to the adult system," Elizabeth Hunt, Van Huizen’s lawyer, told the Tribune in an email.

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Though Van Huizen was charged with a crime covered under Utah’s Serious Youth Offender Act, a recent amendment to the law gives juvenile court judges more discretion to keep minors charged with such crimes in juvenile court, Hunt said.

Hunt notified Jones on July 7 that Van Huizen would appeal the court’s judgment. Hunt said the court should vacate Van Huizen’s sentence, nullify his pleas and return the case to juvenile court.

The appeal accuses the prosecutor, Deputy Weber County Attorney Brody Flint, of breaching the plea agreement. Though Flint had offered to reduce the convictions from felonies to misdemeanors after Van Huizen completed probation, he did not reiterate the recommendation during the sentencing hearing and has since supported the judge’s sentence, Hunt said.

Asked why he supported the sentence even though it ignored his recommendation, Flint said, "I’m not going to comment on that until the case is over and done with." Flint also declined to address the claim that he breached the plea agreement, saying the case is ongoing.

The appeal also argues that Van Huizen’s previous defense attorney, Roy Cole, provided bad legal advice and failed to advocate for Van Huizen’s rights, an assertion Cole denied.

"I’m already filing a complaint against the other attorney for printing a lie and saying I gave bad legal advice," Cole said. "What I gave was good legal advice, solid legal advice, based on the information at hand. The fact that it didn’t come out the way that we thought it would based on the facts we had just means the courts are unpredictable, and sometimes judges make up their own minds."

Cole had been confident the judge would give Van Huizen a similar sentence to those imposed upon his co-defendants.

"In my mind, he does not belong in prison, and nothing anyone says is ever going to change that," Cole said.

Cathy Candelaria, 51, joined the Van Huizens and about 20 others at the rally. In February 2013, Candelaria’s brother Omar Jarman was gunned down in a Midvale home. "I don’t think that a child belongs in an adult prison with adult criminals who have done things like [the man] who killed my brother," Candelaria said.

But her ex-husband Randy Candelaria, 46, who was also at the rally but declined to don a "Free Cooper" T-shirt, disagreed.

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