Murder sentence for Soto revised

Posted: Wednesday, June 01, 2005

One of the men convicted in the 2000 Juneau beating death of Kenneth Ike Thomas shaved 15 years from his sentence Tuesday after agreeing to drop his appeal and testify in a second trial of the other man imprisoned for the crime.

Rey Joel Soto, now 25, appeared in Juneau Superior Court by telephone from prison in Arizona, where he was sent after Judge Larry Weeks sentenced him to 45 years on charges of second-degree murder and first-degree robbery and assault. Weeks suspended an additional 40 years at the first sentencing.

He ordered co-defendant Ronald Edward Smith to serve 85 years, but Smith now faces retrial in September after the Alaska Court of Appeals reversed his conviction in December 2003.

Attorneys agreed to change Soto's 45-year sentence to 30 years, with another 20 suspended and five years of probation after release.

Soto said Tuesday he was "immensely sorry" for his part in the crime and has been working to be a better person when he gets out of prison. "I'm finally beginning to understand how my behavior has affected my own son, who wasn't born at the time."

Weeks said he was impressed with the way Soto had changed his life in prison by taking advantage of substance-abuse and anger-management treatment.

He also said it was important that Soto would testify against Smith.

In Smith's case, the appeals court ruled that Weeks should have excluded one piece of testimony from the case.

Witness Caroline Gerkin testified that her boyfriend, Zachary Brown, told her he gave a shotgun to Smith and Soto before the murder and later cleaned blood from it.

Brown did not testify, invoking his constitutional right not incriminate himself. The appeals court ruled Gerkin's testimony as inadmissible hearsay because Brown's testimony was not against his self-interest and should have been required at trial.

At Soto's original sentencing hearing in March 2001, he said he and Smith had borrowed the shotgun before going to Thomas' trailer in the early hours of Jan. 25, 2000, and Smith asked for money and drugs.

Thomas, 36, and Alfred Torres Sr., then 27, were beaten, according to trial testimony. Thomas was flown to an Anchorage hospital where he died from a head injury the next day.

On Tuesday Juneau District Attorney Patrick Gullufsen told Weeks that because Soto's appeal was pending on a different schedule than Smith's, the state was facing the possibility of holding two separate retrials for defendants charged with the same crimes, which shouldn't be tried separately.

"It appears his remorse is genuine and his candor is real," Gullufsen added.

He said Soto's availability to testify at Smith's trial contributed to the agreement, although it was "not the most important factor."

Weeks said he considered important the condition that Soto testify truthfully at Smith's trial.

Soto said Tuesday he never wants to victimize anyone again.

"Kenneth Thomas didn't deserve to leave the way he did," he said.

He added that he is doing his best so he can lead a productive life when he leaves prison.

"I will always be a convicted felon, but I don't have to be a criminal," he said.

Soto's attorney, Assistant Public Defender David Seid, said the resentencing agreement was "ultimately a fair compromise."

He said his client has backed up the self-improvement promises that he made to the judge at the original sentencing.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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