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Judge declines to soften sentence for Sambath Pal

By Frank Schultz
August 7, 2015

JANESVILLE—A Rock County judge Friday declined to reduce the 20-year sentence he imposed last October in a hit-and-run case involving the deaths of two young Janesville motorcyclists.

Sambath Pal fled the scene of an April 20, 2014, crash on Highway 14 near Janesville that killed Mitchell J. Vance, 24, and Devin J. Julius, 18.

Judge Richard Werner on Friday denied motions that sought to soften the 20-year prison sentence he imposed 10 months ago.

Pal's attorney, Philip Brehm, argued Werner had erred in stating his reasons for his sentence and that the sentence was unduly harsh.

Brehm said in court Friday that Pal would spend most of his youth in prison, serving more than 17 years before becoming eligible for release.

Werner's sentence made Pal ineligible for in-prison rehabilitation programs that could have led to an earlier release.

Brehm said Pal, now 25, is a military veteran and has caused no discipline problems in prison, where he is tutoring and mentoring other prisoners and taking college classes.

Pal's crime was not violent, and he did not intend to harm anyone, Brehm said.

The maximum penalty for the crime is 25 years in prison, but the district attorney had called for a 10-year prison sentence with 10 years of extended supervision after release, or half of the sentence Werner imposed.

The pre-sentence report recommended an initial term of confinement of 10 to 14 years.

The sentence was “unduly harsh and excessive” and “disproportionate to the offenses committed,” Brehm's motion states.

Brehm conceded Pal's actions were “horrible” and “inexcusable,” but he said they were the result of a split-second decision.

Assistant District Attorney Ann Nack said the decision was not split-second, noting that Pal had the opportunity to turn himself in but never did, and he made numerous Internet searches, looking for ways to avoid prosecution and repair the SUV he was driving.

Werner said he reviewed the transcript of his words before pronouncing sentence, and he found no basis for Brehm's argument that Werner erred in describing the aggravating factors in the case.

Werner acknowledged his sentence was longer than recommended, but he noted that a Wisconsin judge is not bound to follow prosecutors' recommendations.

Werner said he properly placed the greatest emphasis on the fact that two young lives were lost and Pal's “callous disregard” afterward.

Werner said he thought it important that Pal be punished and serve a long sentence before being eligible for parole.

Werner said his sentence was just and fair, “and I do not believe I abused my discretion.”

Werner also denied Brehm's motion that sought a hearing on the issue of ineffective counsel, saying Pal's previous attorney had failed to raise the question of whether Pal should have faced two counts of hit-and-run causing death when in fact he had left the scene only once.

Werner cited a Wisconsin precedent that allows multiple charges for multiple injuries or deaths in such a crime and said that if the previous lawyer had raised it, he would have lost.

Brehm said he reserved the right to raise the issue of ineffective counsel with an appeals court.