SALT LAKE CITY — There was sniffling throughout the courtroom Friday.
On the left, a family who had their 20-year-old son taken from them; on the right, a family with a son, not yet 30, sentenced to at least 40 years in prison.
"This is as sad a situation as exists in humankind," 3rd District Judge Ann Boyden said. "The tragedy just enveloped me — how sad, how senseless, how many hearts have been broken because of what happened three years ago."
It was on Sept. 22, 2008, that Christian Sweeten shot and killed Michael Todd Ehlert, 20, and Anthony Marcell Gaines, 42. According to charging documents, he did it because the pair gave Sweeten "bad directions."
"Mr. Sweeten, with a rifle, shot two men in the back," prosecutor Robert Stott said in court. "He robbed two men of their futures."
For that, the 29-year-old was sentenced to consecutive terms of 20 years to life in prison for two reduced charges of murder, a first-degree felony. Boyden also ordered that Sweeten pay $7,630 in restitution.
"I certainly acknowledge what I've done," Sweeten told the judge. "I've deprived a mother of her son, a child of his father, a sister of her brother. There is no excuse for that and I have none."
Because he committed the two slayings simultaneously, Sweeten was initially charged with capital murder, making him eligible for the death penalty. But Ehlert's family asked that the punishment not be pursued.
"My son would not have wanted someone to die," Ilse Ehlert Davis said after the hearing. "An eye for an eye, that's not what this is about. ... (Sweeten) took responsibility and I appreciate what he said."
She said previously that she has been unable to locate Gaines' family. The man was cremated and Davis was told his ashes were never claimed.
With this sentence, Davis said Sweeten has an opportunity to change and make better decisions. "He still has a life to live," she said.
In court, Davis talked to the judge about how Sweeten's actions destroyed three families. She called her son her "greatest strength" and spoke of the close relationship she had with him.
"We miss him," she said. "But however sad it is, this will be justice."
Sweeten turned himself over to police a couple of hours after the fatal incident occurred near 1000 West and 500 North and told investigators that he was lost that morning. He then got upset with Gaines and Ehlert for giving him bad directions, according to the charges filed against him. At some point during the confrontation, Sweeten said he felt the two victims were the aggressors and that he felt threatened to the point that his life was in danger.
But prosecutors say Sweeten was not acting in self-defense. Both Gaines and Ehlert were shot twice in the back with a .22-caliber rifle and neither man was armed.
Ehlert's sister, Nicole, told the Deseret News in an email that she always looked up to her brother, who encouraged her to work hard in school and was so proud when she graduated.
"He wanted us to be everything we could be," she said.
Michael Ehlert was also a father, an "amazing" one who loved his family and tried to be there for the important moments of their lives, Nicole Ehlert said.
"I miss him so much and hope that the man that took his life will know someday how much he meant to my family and me," she said.
In court, she talked about the decision Sweeten made and the impact it had on her family, including Michael Ehlert's now 4-year-old son.
"Michael was everything to our family and friends," she said. "It has been very hard living day by day without him by our side."
She said she is not ready to forgive Sweeten, but hopes he will spend the next 40 years thinking about what he has done. Stott likened the weight the man will carry to "two large boulders."
"Obviously, what we do here today is not going to banish the pain, the suffering, the loneliness these people feel," the prosecutor said. "But today ends the justice process and begins the punishment process — and that's going to go on every day of Mr. Sweeten's life."4 comments on this story
Defense attorney Michael Sikora said this "was a different kind of case, a different kind of guy" and said his client didn't plan the shooting and took responsibility from the beginning. Now, Sweeten hopes to help others.
"He wants to teach inmates to read," Sikora said. "He wants to make the best out of a very bad situation."
Sikora said the shooting was not racially motivated, but that Sweeten's blood alcohol level may have been two to three times the legal limit at the time of the shooting and that Sweeten had been considering suicide.
"I want to work on sobriety, making better choices, doing my best to do a good turn daily," Sweeten said in court. "I reacted very poorly and I have to pay for that."