CLOVIS – In an agreement quietly discussed last month and reached on paper Tuesday, Nathaniel Jouett pleaded guilty to 30 felony charges leveled against him for the deadly mass shooting at the Clovis-Carver Public Library.
Jouett, 17, was previously scheduled to be tried as an adult next year in a monthlong trial in Roswell. Instead, defense attorney Stephen Taylor proposed last month the plea agreement, which bypasses a lengthy trial, but maintains an effort to see that Jouett be considered for an amenability hearing prior to sentencing.
Punishment is far from settled, however. Jouett could face up to two life terms in prison plus 96 years; the minimum punishment would be probation.
The then-16 year-old was arrested Aug. 28, 2017, after he opened fire in the library across from the Curry County Courthouse, killing two librarians – Krissie Carter and Wanda Walters – and injuring four other individuals, including a young boy and a circulation assistant.
Jouett still faces a sentence ranging from probation to multiple terms of life in prison; it’s as if he proceeded with the trial in March and was convicted on all counts (including two first-degree murder charges), but without the additional time, expense and turmoil of those weeks in Chaves County.
“I was initially surprised, but I was happy to know that Mr. Jouett was actually taking responsibility for what he had done, not putting the victims through a trial,” District Attorney Andrea Reeb said on Tuesday.
“That obviously is a huge step and it costs a lot of money, and it costs a lot of travel time and heartache for everybody involved.
“I would commend him for that for sure. I’m very happy that this part of it can be set aside now and we can move forward to getting some type of resolution for victims and families.”
There’s still quite a process ahead; Reeb signed the plea agreement Tuesday and it needs to be formalized in a plea setting later this month. In mid-November, 5th Judicial District Judge James Hudson will hear a motion from Taylor challenging the state’s “serious youthful offender” statute in the hope of having Jouett qualify for a subsequent hearing to be considered for treatment rather than lengthy incarceration.
“Mr. Taylor is challenging the constitutionality of that statute, but if he were to change the statute, he would be changing what the current law is in New Mexico,” Reeb said. “So, yes, Judge Hudson could, I guess, make new law. That’s been attempted and tried I think around the state.”
As it is, an offender age 15, 16 or 17 found guilty of first-degree murder does not qualify for an “amenability hearing,” which would determine if he could be treated through his early 20s in the state’s Children, Youth and Families Department.
“Another way to put it would be to say that the request that the defense is making is one that we think would not violate the equal protection rights of Nathaniel,” Taylor told The News. “A 16-year-old is much more like a 14-year-old than … like an adult (in terms of development) … . Our hope is that the court will take a look at this question and undertake a serious review of the law and make a decision that balances the interests.”
That’s one fork in the path unfolding the next several months; another is that the court denies Taylor’s motion and it proceeds to a sentencing hearing expected to last weeks, with impact statements from 30 or more victims, as well as mental health experts.
Those dates are subject to court availability, but are expected to take at least one or two weeks; Reeb said it’s possible the next opening might not be until the period in March previously allocated for a jury trial. The “realm of punishments” Jouett faces are the same, Reeb said, and they occupy a wide range.
“Because he’s under the age of 18, (Jouett) faces anything from probation up to two life sentences for the murders, plus 96 years on top of that for the other charges,” she said. “So basically all ranges and sentences are open to the judge. He doesn’t have the mandatory life sentences.”
Reeb said she would sit down with victims before venturing a concrete recommendation as to sentencing, but expected a large request.
“It goes without saying that taking the lives of somebody should be met with a life sentence for each,” she said. “I think the state will probably be asking for a pretty lengthy sentence.”
Taylor said he wants what is fair for his client, who himself was now trying to do what is right.
“Our goal is to see that Nathaniel gets treated fairly and that he has a shot at some form of treatment, because he desperately needs it,” Taylor said. “It’s something that Nathaniel’s doing not only for himself, but also for the victims, the many victims, the many people that have been impacted in the Clovis community. … Nathaniel wants to do it and it is all that he can do to try to make things better for the victims and to try to do the right thing.”