URBANA — A Fithian man who slashed another man's throat while making an apparent reference to the victim's race was sentenced Monday to 20 years in prison.
Joshua Scaggs, 26, will have to serve at least 17 years for the attempted first-degree murder of A.U. Dhammika "Dom" Dharmapala, 44, a University of Illinois law professor.
Dharmapala, a U.S. citizen with dark skin, was sitting in the Illinois Terminal in downtown Champaign waiting for a train to Chicago about 5:40 a.m. on Dec. 7, 2011, when Scaggs jumped from a nearby seat and lunged at him with a knife, shouting "This is my (expletive) country. I will kill you."
Scaggs retreated for an instant before plunging the knife into Dharmapala's neck, forever changing Dharmapala's emotional and physical well-being.
After being in a mental institution for more than two years to become fit to stand trial, Scaggs pleaded guilty in May to attempted first-degree murder in exchange for a promise from Assistant State's Attorney Steve Ziegler that he would seek no more than 20 years in prison. Ziegler also dismissed two other aggravated battery counts.
In an emotionally charged sentencing hearing that took 90 minutes, long-time Judge Harry Clem called Scaggs' actions "one of the most appalling crimes to ever come before this judge's bench."
About 60 people, mostly supporters of Dharmapala, packed the courtroom.
"It is a crime where the defendant saw a person he thought was from a different country and attacked that person in a way that his intent was to kill him," Clem said. "He said he wants to pay his debt to society. That's an admirable thought. Because of his conduct and his repeated making of bad decisions, he has a substantial debt."
Scaggs cried as he sought forgiveness from Dharmapala.
"I can't say 'I apologize' enough to you, sir, for what I did to you and your family. I'm sorry for your emotional stress and pain and everything that goes along with what happened that day," Scaggs said.
Dharmapala took 11 minutes to read aloud a three-page victim impact statement detailing for the judge the physical and emotional toll the attack has taken on him and his wife of nine years. He has had three surgeries, will need continued therapy for at least another five years, and no longer feels safe living in Champaign, he said.
"While any violent attack is traumatic, being targeted for killing because of the color of one's skin in exceptionally horrific. This is an immutable characteristic and an attack of this natures gives rise to constant anxiety about the possibility of future attacks," Dharmapala said.
Because Scaggs does not have the means to pay, Ziegler did not seek restitution for Dharmapala's out-of-pocket expenses, which Dharmapala put at more than $19,000. Included in that amount was more than $8,400 Dharmapala has paid to a Washington, D.C., attorney counseling him regarding pursuing federal charges of hate crime against Scaggs.
The rest was for medical expenses, ongoing counseling, and clothing and accessories ruined in the attack.
To aggravate Scaggs' sentence, Ziegler had Champaign police detective Robb Morris testify about interviewing Scaggs the day of the attack.
He said Scaggs denied being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
"He said he was sick of seeing his country run down. He was trying to protect the U.S. from the enemy," said Morris, who said Dharmapala had done nothing to provoke the confrontation.
On cross-examination by Public Defender Randy Rosenbaum, Morris admitted that he was concerned about Scaggs' mental health based on his responses, body language and mannerisms during the interview.
To lessen Scaggs' sentence, Rosenbaum had Scaggs' father, Michael Trosper of Flagstaff, Ariz., tell about his son's troubled upbringing. Trosper said he left Scaggs' mother, a nightclub stripper, when Scaggs was about 3 due to their constant fighting. She had a drug problem, he said, admitting he also used when younger.
He had no contact with Scaggs for several years but made intermittent attempts to help by having Scaggs live with him, but Scaggs always wanted to return to his mother. The Department of Children and Family Services ultimately removed Scaggs from her. He lived with an aunt and uncle in Bedford, Ind., during high school.
"The day he turned 18, he jumped out his bedroom window and never looked back," said Trosper, who admitted that his son took drugs with both him and his mother.
In December 2011, Trosper was in Champaign visiting his son. He could tell that Scaggs had been using drugs and said Scaggs' mother had told him a couple of days before his arrest that Scaggs needed help and that she planned to get him to a doctor.
On the morning of the attack, Trosper said, Scaggs left the motel room they were sharing, saying he was going to try to find his dad's luggage, which had been misplaced by Greyhound.
"He never came back," said Trosper, crying as he said his son "wouldn't hurt anybody. It was totally out of character."
Arguing for the 20-year sentence, Ziegler said Scaggs was supposed to be on probation for burglary out of Indiana and had not reported. He also noted that Scaggs told Champaign psychiatrist Larry Jeckel that he had used synthetic cannabis three weeks prior to the attack.
"It made him feel schizophrenic and psychotic, that people were going to kill him and that he should kill first," Ziegler recounted.
But instead of discontinuing use of the drug, he used it again the night before the stabbing.
Arguing for a sentence closer to the minimum six years, Rosenbaum said Scaggs' criminal history was minimal and his home life as a child was horrendous. Days before the attack, he said, Scaggs' mother had been ranting about having been fired from her job by an Iranian.
"It's clear that was the perfect storm," he said, noting that his client was diagnosed shortly after his arrest as being "delusional" and having "zero impulse control."
Before imposing sentence, Clem made clear to Dharmapala's supporters that he was prohibited by law from considering letters that friends, professional colleagues and family members of Dharmapala had sent to him urging a harsh sentence for Scaggs.
Dharmapala said since mid-2013, he has lived in Chicago, teaching at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago Law School while getting treatment at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. His wife has continued to teach at the UI's Urbana campus, he said.