By Alex Emslie
An Oakland 17-year-old convicted last year of setting a sleeping teenager’s dress ablaze on an AC Transit bus received a reduced sentence in Alameda County Superior Court on Monday that will likely allow him to serve his whole term in juvenile detention.
Richard Thomas pleaded no contest to felony assault in October. His original seven-year sentence included an enhancement for inflicting great bodily injury on Sasha Fleischman, who suffered second- and third-degree burns to the legs in the Oakland attack on Nov. 4, 2013.
The case drew attention as a potential hate crime because Sasha identifies as agender — neither male nor female — and the fact that Thomas told police he was “homophobic.” His attorney said Thomas was confused in the interview and meant to say “heterosexual.”
The New York Times Magazine detailed the investigators’ interview with Richard, as well as other broad issues raised by the case:
Oakland is one of America’s most diverse cities. We pride ourselves on our tolerance; this is, after all, the Bay Area. Yet for all its laid-back inclusiveness, Oakland is also a city of grim contrasts. The wealthier hills neighborhoods have good schools, low crime and views of the bay. The historic buildings downtown are filling with tech start-ups, boutiques peddling handmade jeans and nightspots with seven-ingredient cocktails. But little of this good fortune has spilled over into East Oakland, where Richard lived, a region of grinding poverty and chronic violence. Richard and Sasha lived in the same city, but their paths might never have crossed if they didn’t both ride the 57 bus.
The potential hate-crime sentence enhancements were eventually dropped in the plea deal, but Thomas still faced a sentence that would have kept him incarcerated beyond his 21st birthday, meaning he was looking at transferring to adult prison sometime next week, after he turns 18, said defense attorney William Du Bois.
But Fleischman’s parents advocated for an alternative punishment for Thomas, who was 16 at the time of the assault.
“A 16-year-old’s actions — however severe the results — don’t have any place in the adult judicial system,” said Debbie Crandall, Fleischman’s mother, after the plea agreement was announced.
Du Bois said Sasha Fleischman’s father Karl Fleischman read a statement to the Court Monday on behalf of the entire family in support of the shorter sentence.
“It was an amazing show of courage by them to take this position,” Du Bois said.
The court received positive reports from the Department of Juvenile Justice, according to Du Bois and the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, and Judge Paul Delucchi resentenced Thomas to five years’ confinement.
“I think he wants to improve himself in every way he can,” Du Bois said. “I think he wants to educate himself. One of the things this case has taught him is the value of education and the devastation wrought by ignorance.”
Dropping two years off the term means Thomas could be released in June 2018, prosecutors said, weeks before his 21st birthday, and he will not have to transfer to the adult corrections system.
“There was a lot of thought, care and consideration that went into this negotiated disposition,” said Teresa Drenick, an Alameda County assistant district attorney and spokeswoman for the DA’s office.
“That includes taking into consideration the age of the defendant, the severity of the crime, the input of the victim and the victim’s family, and our — the DA’s — responsibility to ensure the safety of the community,” Drenick said.