NILES -- The second of five Niles teenagers charged in a sex video extortion case was sentenced today in Berrien County Trial Court, with Leon Murphy, 18, handed a 7- to 15-year prison term.
But with three other teens -- Trey Nichols, Parnell Martin and Martell Miller -- still awaiting sentencing, questions still remain about the troubling case. One issue that surfaced Monday was how much of a leadership role, if any, Murphy had in the crime.
Judge Scott Schofield also questioned how someone with Murphy's religious upbringing could seemingly set the wheels in motion for a 17-year-old girl to be subjected to a series of sexual assaults by Murphy and his friends.
James Miller, Murphy's attorney, said he remains at a loss to explain why the crime unfolded.
"I challenge people to explain why this happened, and I can't find an answer,'' he told Schofield.
Schofield and Berrien County Assistant Prosecutor Steve Pierangeli agreed with Miller that Murphy should receive some credit for being the first to accept a plea bargain that called for him to testify against his co-defendants. Still, Pierangeli said he was struck by Murphy's lack of compassion for the victim.
"This was almost a game or a joke to him,'' he said.
According to testimony at the trial of Martise Washington, the only teen to go to trial in the high-profile case, it was Washington's idea to secretly record on his cell phone his consensual sexual encounter with the victim on March 14 at Nichols' home in Niles. The victim testified that, four days later, she received a text message from Murphy telling her he was watching the video and that she'd also have to perform sex acts with him or he'd upload the recording to Facebook.
The girl said felt she had no choice but to concede to his demands. She also learned when she met Murphy later that day, she said, that she'd have to perform sex acts not only with him but Martin, Miller and, once again, Washington.
Echoing his words to Washington at his sentencing last week, Schofield told Murphy he and his co-defendants had treated the girl as "an object ... to be used and discarded.
'' After pointing to another alleged sexual assault of a different underage girl that wasn't included in Murphy's guilty plea and wasn't part of his sentence, the judge referred to Murphy as "a leader'' in the assault of the girl depicted in the video.
"I don't know that the other men would have been involved if not for your leadership,'' he said.
Later, however, Miller told reporters outside the courtroom he disagreed with that characterization of his client.
Before his sentencing, Murphy cried as he asked for forgiveness. After he was handed his sentence that includes 221 days credit for time already served, he answered "yes'' but slowly shook his head from side to side when asked if he understood the terms.
Schofield said he took into account Murphy's cooperation by not sentencing him at the top of the 57- to 95-month guideline range. He said he couldn't overlook, however, the impact of the crime on the girl in the video, who's receiving counseling, and Murphy's prominent role.
"It's not a stretch to call you a sexual predator,'' the judge said.
Washington was sentenced last week to a 20- to 40-year prison term. Miller accepted a plea bargain last week and is expected to serve no more than a year in jail.
Staff writer Lou Mumford:email@example.com