STANTON – The Michigan Court of Appeals has upheld the conviction but vacated the sentence of Steve Stewart, who built a chemical bomb which exploded in the face of the man who was dating Stewart’s ex-girlfriend.
Derek Lehman opened a large wooden box he found in the driveway of his Eureka Township home the morning of Sept. 11, 2008. When he opened the box, a sulfuric acid mixture exploded onto his face and body.
Lehman permanently lost sight in his right eye as a result of the explosion and his left arm was severely burned from the chemicals. He was dating Stewart’s ex-girlfriend at the time of the explosion.
Stewart, formerly of Stanton, was convicted by a trial jury in March 2011 of unlawful possession or use of harmful devices causing injury. He was sentenced in June 2011 to from 27 to 50 years in prison.
Stewart appealed his sentence, arguing that 8th Judicial Circuit Court Chief Judge Suzanne Hoseth Kreeger abused her discretion when she departed from the sentencing guidelines and failed to articulate reasons for the extent of the departure.
The Court of Appeals released an opinion on Aug. 15, upholding Stewart’s conviction, but vacating his sentence and remanding him for re-sentencing.
According to the Court of Appeals, the appropriate minimum sentencing range for Stewart was from 135 months to 225 months. Kreeger imposed a sentence of 324 months (27 years) for the following reasons: the crime occurred on Sept. 11; the impact the crime had on the community, including Spectrum Health United Hospital in Greenville shutting down and going into disaster mode; the pain and suffering to the victim, his family, his girlfriend and her family; and the victim’s loss of sight.
The Court of Appeals agreed that the hospital shutting down was an appropriate reason for increasing the sentence. However, the Court of Appeals did not agree with the other three reasons given by the judge.
“The trial court did abuse its discretion by determining that the significance of the date was a substantial and compelling reason that could justify an upward departure,” the Court of Appeals opinion stated. “Although the event occurred on Sept. 11, the trial court did not make a factual determination that (the) defendant specifically intended to mastermind the event to occur on that date to make a statement regarding terrorism. The record seems to indicate that (the) defendant only intended to target his ex-girlfriend and did not intend to accomplish an act of terrorism. The trial court failed to identify facts in the record demonstrating that (the) defendant specifically chose that date for a reason. Further, the trial court stated that the date has ramifications for every individual who became aware of the defendant’s act. However, this is not objective and verifiable, as there is no way to determine how every individual reacted.
“The trial court also abused its discretion by relying on the victim’s loss of sight and the pain and suffering of the families involved as justification for an upward departure,” the opinion stated. Although the victim’s injuries and the pain and suffering that these people endured were objective and verifiable … the court failed to address how these characteristics were given inadequate weight by the scoring variables.
“Further, the trial court erred by not explaining why the sentence imposed is more proportionate than a sentence that is within the guidelines range,” the opinion stated. “The trial court must also articulate reasons to support the extent of the departure.”
Stewart also appealed his conviction, arguing that there was insufficient evidence to convict him because his trial attorney Damian Nunzio was ineffective for stipulating to the essential elements of the crime and for not hiring an expert witness to challenge the essential elements of the crime. Stewart also argued that the plaintiff did not provide sufficient scientific evidence to substantiate the essential elements of the crime.
The Court of Appeals found that there was sufficient evidence to support convicting Stewart.
Montcalm County Prosecutor Andrea Krause had argued at Stewart’s trial that he demonstrated “extreme willfulness” in the manner in which he committed the crime. She cited the factors of aggravated use of a weapon, the intent to kill or injure, the physical and psychological injury to Lehman and the psychological injury to his family and others.
“It’s disappointing that the Court of Appeals did not see the significance of this crime occurring on Sept. 11,” Krause said. “Law enforcement certainly thought that was significant as both the FBI and ATF helped in the investigation. I have been discussing this decision with the Attorney General’s office that handles our criminal appeals and I am hopeful that we will appeal this decision regarding the sentence.
“Thankfully, the conviction was upheld,” Krause added.