This editorial was published by the News Tribune of Tacoma.
Does the name Skylar Nemetz ring a bell? For many South Sound residents, it should — particularly those who closely follow local crime.
Nemetz was the 20-year-old Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier who killed his 19-year-old wife, Danielle, at their Lakewood apartment in 2014. Though he never stopped claiming it was an accident, prosecutors said he flew into a jealous rage and shot her in the back of the head while she sat at a computer. After a sensational trial with some national buzz, Nemetz was convicted of first-degree manslaughter in March 2016 and sentenced to 13½ years in prison.
Recently the Nemetz case resurfaced in the Washington State Court of Appeals, albeit in a low-profile way. A three-judge panel in Tacoma rejected Nemetz’s appeal related to his age at the time of the crime; he claimed he suffered a “complete miscarriage of justice,” alleging the trial court judge didn’t properly consider his youth and immaturity before deciding there was no basis for a prison term shorter than the one he received.
Did Nemetz behave recklessly when he killed his wife? Absolutely, he acknowledged. But recklessness is “the very hallmark of youth,” his defense team argued, adding that Nemetz’s ability to grasp the wrongfulness of his behavior was “significantly impaired” by his being just 20.
Fortunately, the trial court didn’t buy it in 2016, nor did the appeals court in its July ruling — and for what it’s worth, neither do we.
Taking full responsibility for one’s actions in early adulthood is a message that should be reinforced at every opportunity. It’s vital in a community full of young, well-armed soldiers assigned to a large military base, to be sure. But it’s also vital in the middle of a COVID-19 pandemic, when young adults from all walks of life are making potentially life-or-death choices to follow or flout public-health guidelines.
The record-setting surge in COVID-19 infections this summer has been driven by people in the 20-29 age group. Pierce County is at the forefront of this alarming trend.
No, that’s not the same as a loaded gun. But it might be helpful for more young people to look at it that way.
The Nemetz saga was remarkable for more than its tragic elements, which united local military and civilian communities in grief. It also gained national attention through a provocative legal-affairs TV talk show and likely contributed to the downfall of former Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist.
During Nemetz’s trial, Lindquist foolishly talked about the defendant’s potential guilt on the “Nancy Grace Show.” The incident became part of the campaign against Lindquist’s 2018 reelection effort, which he lost handily, and he was later admonished by the State Bar Association.
Fast forward to 2020, when the appeals judges turned away Nemetz’s argument that his age was given short shrift at sentencing. In fact, they ruled, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Jack Nevin did consider issues of diminished capacity, as the law requires.
But youth was eclipsed by other factors when the judge imposed a maximum standard-range sentence: chiefly, that Nemetz had handled guns since boyhood, owned 13 firearms and had extensive safety training in and out of the military.
“I just can’t think of anything that can extenuate or can mitigate the level of recklessness given your skills on that day,” Nevin told Nemetz. “I can’t.”
In recent years, Washington courts have grown more responsive to age-related concerns. In 2018, the Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that sentencing youth offenders to life in prison without parole is unconstitutional. Judges now give credence to research showing that parts of the brain governing impulse control can keep developing into a person’s 20s. For that they should be credited.
But the latest Skylar Nemetz ruling is soundly reasoned and lays down an important marker for young adult accountability. If it finally puts this case to rest and grants Danielle’s family another small measure of peace, even better.