JACKSON, MI – When a Jackson County Judge turned to Charles Penn and asked why he shouldn’t give his daughter an adult sentence for setting his home on fire, Penn answered: “She was a little girl.”
The judge wanted to agree, but couldn’t in accordance with Michigan law.
“I’d like to be able to sentence you as a juvenile,” Jackson County Circuit Judge John McBain told Penn’s daughter, Alexis, 15, at the end of her sentencing hearing Wednesday, Sept. 30.
“If for some reason Michigan ever changes its laws concerning the way that juveniles are sentenced, then I would consider resentencing,” he added.
On Wednesday, McBain sentenced Alexis Penn, 15, to seven to 20 years in prison for her role in the Nov. 2 arson of her father’s home in Hanover Township.
Although McBain said Penn’s case would be better handled under juvenile sentencing guidelines, he designated her as an adult because first-degree arson falls under an “automatic waiver statute” in Michigan, which prevents her from being tried as a juvenile.
“The judge really had no other option,” explained Assistant Prosecutor Steven Idema after the sentence. “I think it’s a fair and just sentence, but it’s a sad sentence, too.”
McBain’s decision came at the end of a lengthy sentencing hearing in which he heard testimony from four witnesses called by Penn’s attorney, Lynn D’Orio.
Of the witnesses called were Penn’s father and sister, Charlie Penn, as well as Penn’s therapist.
Charles Penn testified that his oldest daughter, Charlie, 17, woke him up the night of the fire, saying she smelled gasoline.
As fire burned in an upstairs bedroom, Charles Penn said he assumed Damion Hopkins, Alexis Penn’s 18-year-old boyfriend and co-defendant, set the house alight.
Scrambling to find Alexis in the blaze, Charles Penn suffered first- and second-degree burns to his face, ears and arms and underwent five days of treatment at the University of Michigan Health Center.
In addition, he incurred $100,000 in hospital bills.
When asked if his daughter’s punishment should be the same as her co-defendant, who was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in April, Charles Penn was adamant. No, she should not, he said.
“She was mentally ill at the time and he was an adult,” he added.
Dr. Anthony Gensterblum, a licensed psychologist who’s been treating Alexis Penn since 2013, testified that Penn suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as persistent depressant disorder, and was diagnosed with both conditions before the incident.
In over 80 therapy sessions, Gensterblum described how Penn was “hyper vigilant” around adults, particularly men, and was committed three times for being suicidal.
However, Gensterblum testified to seeing an improvement in Penn’s condition in the months leading up to the arson. Her grades in school had improved and her therapy sessions became less frequent, he said.
He was surprised to learn of the arson.
“It was quite a shock,” Gensterblum said on the stand.
Continuing their therapy sessions after the incident, Gensterblum said Penn did not acknowledge her role in the crime at first, although became increasingly remorseful after learning her father suffered burns while trying to save her.
“I saw a radical change in her presentation,” Gensterblum said, adding her father’s effort during the fire “had a profound effect on her.”
Two months before her sentencing Wednesday, Penn plead guilty to helping start the fire during a hearing in August. She knew she was putting both her father and sister at risk when helping start the blaze, she said.
Penn took the guilty plea from the Prosecutor’s Office following the results of a forensic examination Penn underwent, which found her mentally ill, but criminally responsible and competent to stand trial for her crime.
In exchange for the plea, prosecutors did not seek additional charges of attempted murder, conspiracy to commit murder and conspiracy to commit arson.
Penn apologized to the judge Wednesday, as well as to her family and supporters gathered in the court room.
“At the time of the offense, I obviously wasn’t thinking clearly. I was scared, confused and alone,” Penn said, turning to her victims in tears. “Most importantly I’d like to apologize to my father and my sister for the pain and hardship that I’ve caused.
“I hope there will come a time when I’m no longer perceived as a threat to the community,” she added.
Sentencing Penn to the low end of his sentencing guidelines, McBain reminded Penn how serious the charges could have been if her father or sister had died in the fire.
Despite the potential for harm, McBain did not feel Penn should be given the same sentence as her co-defendant.
“I don’t think it would be fair for the court to give you the same sentence (as Hopkins),” McBain said, citing the couple’s age difference and her mental health. “Frankly, I think you were deeply troubled, even before this offense occurred.
“I put on the record that I think your case would be better handled as a juvenile (case),” he added after handing down the adult sentence.
Penn was ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation and be given counseling in addition to the sentence.
She is credited for 309 days served.
If you or someone you know has been the victim of a crime, please contact The Dailey Law Firm. The experienced attorneys at The Dailey Law Firm will go above and beyond to help you and your loved one. To schedule an appointment today, call the Michigan office at 248-554-5005, the Illinois office at 312-867-8800, and the Missouri office at 855-529-7469.