Assisted only by a black cane, Ray Widstrand walked slowly to the front of the courtroom Tuesday morning and described how the brutal beating that destroyed a third of his skull had brought his life to a “screeching halt.”
Ramsey County District Judge Joanne Smith asked him if he needed to sit, but Widstrand insisted he would stand, a simple but remarkable act of strength from a man doctors had feared would die after Cindarion Butler and several other teens punched and kicked him into the ground on St. Paul’s East Side last summer.
“I’m fine, thank you,” Widstrand, 27, replied. “The actions of Cindarion Butler and the other individuals who attacked me … brought my life to a screeching halt. I was a productive member of society. Since then, I have been living in and out of hospitals, care facilities.”
Butler, 17, also had words for the judge about to sentence him for his role in the attack.
“I’m sorry,” said Butler, who was charged as an adult and convicted of aiding and abetting first-degree assault and first-degree robbery. “I wish I could have stopped the situation. I was at the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Smith wasn’t buying it, swiftly telling Butler that she had a strong “B.S. detector” and didn’t believe a word he said.
“What you’re telling me is for your own benefit,” Smith said. “Frankly, I think what you’re sorry for is that you were caught.”
She sentenced him to 16 years in prison, citing the jury’s finding of aggravating factors in exceeding the recommended sentence of seven to 10 years.
The Aug. 4 attack on Widstrand stunned the community. Its senselessness and brutality awakened many to the growing problem of idle and forgotten youth in a city that bills itself as “The most livable city in America.” Police said that many of the teens present at the beating were members or associates of street gangs known for retaliation killings, assaults and threats.
Authorities believe 50 to 70 teens were at a party on Preble Street near E. Minnehaha Avenue. The crowd had spilled out onto the street to watch fights between girls. Widstrand, who lived nearby, walked into the melee and was attacked and stripped of his shorts when he stopped to help a girl off the ground about 11:30 p.m.
Police believe there may have been up to 12 assailants, but only five were charged. Issac O. Maiden, 19, was acquitted at trial. A juvenile pleaded guilty, and 16-year-old Charles K. Redding was certified as an adult and has a hearing Wednesday. Redding allegedly landed the punch that knocked Widstrand unconscious.
Charges against a fifth suspect, a juvenile, were dismissed.
Butler’s attorney, Christopher Zipko, said that the prosecution case rested on one witness who said Butler rummaged through Widstrand’s pockets. Zipko asked for a sentence of about four years or at maximum, 8½ years.
Smith, however, granted prosecutor David Miller’s request for a 16-year term.
Smith told Butler that he hasn’t taken responsibility for his actions, because evidence at trial indicated that he had a larger role in the attack than he has accepted. Miller, an assistant Ramsey County attorney, said at the trial that blood on Butler’s shoes and shorts matching Widstrand’s DNA prove that Butler attacked him.
The judge also admonished Butler for floating in and out of the criminal justice system since age 11, and for being “unsuccessfully” discharged from a juvenile correctional facility just two months before the attack on Widstrand.
‘No end in sight’
The last time Widstrand was in court, at Butler’s trial in January, he needed the assistance of a walking stick and a wheelchair. On Tuesday, he carried only a black cane emblazoned with red and orange flames.
Although he has recovered beyond initial expectations, Widstrand told Smith he’ll likely require medical care for the rest of his life. It’s unclear if he’ll ever recover enough to drive regularly, work full time or live on his own.
Widstrand lives with his parents, and continues to receive outpatient care at the Courage Center. He’s scheduled to have a plastic plate screwed, sewn and stapled into his skull on April 3, his fifth brain surgery.
Doctors had removed part of his skull to alleviate pressure and later replaced it. But it was removed due to infection, necessitating the plastic plate, which will be permanent, barring unforeseen problems.
“There is no end in sight,” Widstrand told Smith.
But Widstrand also showed his characteristic optimism Tuesday, saying after the sentencing that he appreciated hearing Butler’s comments. He said he’s looking forward to getting back outside after his surgery next week, and possibly driving again.
“I hope everyone can move on from this,” Widstrand said.