THOUSAND OAKS — As the single mother of two adolescent boys, Sharry Holland always worried. Mostly about small stuff, though. Like maybe they would get in the wrong car or go to the wrong party or sass somebody they shouldn't.
She knew trouble can easily come calling for teenagers, enticing them into potentially dangerous situations.
"It's such a thin line they walk," Holland said. "It's like they're trying to stay on the balance beam of life throughout adolescence."
On May 22, 1995, her two sons--Jason, 19, and Micah, 16--fell off that balance beam in a way that Holland never anticipated. Along with two other Conejo Valley youths, the Holland brothers got into a backyard brawl with two acquaintances. It wasn't about much more than boyhood bravado--and a few bags of marijuana--but it ended with disastrous results.
A 16-year-old Agoura Hills boy named Jimmy Farris, the popular son of a Los Angeles police officer, was left dead, stabbed twice. The friend Farris was defending in the fight, Mike McLoren, who was also the owner of the pot, was badly injured, bleeding from three stab wounds.
Six weeks ago, Jason and Micah Holland, Brandon Hein, 19, of Oak Park and Tony Miliotti, 18, of Westlake Village were convicted of first-degree murder by a Malibu jury. The jury also found a special circumstance--that the murder happened during a felony robbery, the attempted theft of the marijuana. Because of the special circumstance, the four youths face a possible life sentence without parole. Their sentencing is scheduled for today, although their attorneys have asked Malibu Municipal Judge Lawrence J. Mira for a delay.
Sharry Holland knows Mira's hands are basically tied, that there is little chance of getting around the conviction and the sentence it carries--although Micah and Tony Miliotti, who were both juveniles at the time of the murder, could be given lighter sentences. She is holding out hope that Mira will not send all four to prison for life.
"I'd ask him to search his heart," she said. "I don't see how anybody could think that life in prison for any of them is fair.
"How can they just throw the boys' lives away over a mistake, an accident, an unplanned, chaotic backyard fight?" she asked.
During the trial, Jason Holland testified that it was he who stabbed Jimmy Farris. He told the jury that he and the other boys were drunk and that he was trying to defend his younger brother, who McLoren had in a headlock. He never intended to kill Farris, he said.
Police and the district attorney's office believe the youths were linked to a suburban wannabe gang called the Gumbys and suggested that the deadly fight was motivated by a desire to enhance the gang's reputation. But the defense repeatedly denied the connection and Mira allowed only minimal testimony about the issue during the trial.
Sharry Holland said that by testifying, Jason wanted to take responsibility for his actions. She said he's ready to accept whatever punishment the judge hands out. But she said he still can't bear the fact that his brother and his friends will also be punished for what he did.
"He thinks that it is pretty much, 'I know my life is over,' but that it shouldn't be for the other boys," she said.
Ira Salzman, who is representing Jason, said the murder conviction with a special circumstance was too harsh. Based on Jason's testimony on the witness stand, he said, he expected the youth to receive a voluntary or involuntary manslaughter conviction only.
"I believed that the other three would have been acquitted," Salzman said. "Jason Holland was never portrayed as not guilty of a crime. He certainly was presented, and fairly so, as having been guilty of unreasonable use of force, which sadly took a life. But whatever he did was motivated by concern for his brother."
To send all four to prison for life is an improper use of one of the justice system's toughest punishments, he said.
"We want to reserve one of the more onerous punishments we have for coldblooded intentional murderers," Salzman said. "Even the prosecutors can't say with a straight face that there was intent to kill here."
Salzman said he felt prosecutors were particularly tough on these defendants because of the suburban setting of the crime.
"If this case didn't arise out of Agoura Hills, it certainly would have been allowed to be settled on a fair, just basis," he said. "This is the kind of case that happens in downtown Los Angeles or Compton every day. But because it happened in Agoura, that makes it somehow some major moral crusade."
Prosecutor Mike Latin said the suburban setting may have made a difference in the amount of publicity the case received, but scoffed at the defense contention that it heightened prosecutorial zeal. "I think that is ridiculous," he said.