Weighing the factors: Attorneys debate aggravating and mitigating factors in the Box-Skinner murder case

By: 
Staff Writer Kate Wehlann

Those convicted or pleading guilty to murder in Indiana can expect a sentence of 45 to 65 years, with the advisory sentence being 55 years. How, then, does a judge decide which number of years to sentence a murderer?

There are a variety of aggravating factors, which would result in more years added to a sentence, and mitigating factors, which could reduce it. A judge is not obligated to start at the advisory 55 years when adding or subtracting time, but Judge Larry Medlock said in court Monday that is where he starts most of the time.

Therefore, it was up to Prosecutor Dustin Houchin and defense attorney Mark Clark to present arguments for the various factors that support their request for the sentencing of Joshuah Rainbolt, who pled guilty in April to the murder of his best friend, Blake Box-Skinner in January 2017.

‘He’s not sorry’

Houchin listed, among his aggravating factors, a lack of remorse. He told how Rainbolt had lied to police to hide the crime, but before that, had stuffed the body into a shed, hid the weapon and lied to family and friends. He had even used Box-Skinner’s phone after he was dead, telling Box-Skinner’s girlfriend Selena Huizar when she texted, looking for Box-Skinner, that he had lent it to Rainbolt while he was getting his truck fixed and even pretending to be Box-Skinner when his mother texted. Text messages shown in court tracked Box-Skinner’s phone’s use during his last activity on it and the start of Rainbolt’s, including messages detailing his efforts to purchase marijuana for himself and his mother from one dealer and then saying he’d purchased from another when the first was taking too long.

“He’s not sorry,” said Houchin. “He shot Blake in the back of the head at point-blank range and used Blake’s phone to score some weed. He’s not sorry.”

Later, he added the first time evidence of the “real” Rainbolt emerged was right after the murder.

“He hid the body. He hid the weapon. He lied. [Rainbolt’s] mother came to the house and Blake’s body was in the shed and he said nothing,” Houchin said. “It’s not that he can’t get the words out. He doesn’t want to. He’s not incoherent or illogical. What he did was perfectly coherent, logical and laid out. He was texting his drug-dealing friends through intermediaries for two dealers. He was managing this perfectly well … It’s only when he’s talking about things that could hurt his case that he fragments. We don’t have to buy this … Maybe he’s sad today, but it’s too late. If you killed your best friend, you call the police. If he was too scared, he could have told his mom. He didn’t do that. He and his mom scored weed. When your best friend’s mom contacts you, you tell her what happened and how sorry you are.”

Houchin also mentioned a history of daily marijuana use. He didn’t consider that drug use to be a cause of the murder, but a sign that, while Rainbolt hadn’t been caught and convicted of breaking the law, he did commit a crime on a daily basis. This, he said, should count as a history of criminal activity, even though he has no arrest record for it.

“I smoked a lot of pot in my time,” Rainbolt told investigators in a recorded interview.

“I’ve heard you say it thousands of times, Judge, especially to young men. ‘Are you going to spend your life laying on the couch, smoking weed and playing video games?’ You say that because of him!” Houchin said, pointing to Rainbolt. “This is where it leads. Because they develop into Joshuah Rainbolt. There’s too many people in our community like this … How could he have undid the damage from his poor role models? He needed to get off his butt and go to work. These other young men who are living like this need to stop because they could have been the ones shot or they could have been the ones to shoot someone! We have to pay for people like him, people on disability, people on Medicaid because all they want to do is lay around and smoke weed!”

Other aggravating factors Houchin listed were extent of loss to the victim and family, his efforts to conceal the crime and the way the weapon was used.

“There are no mitigating circumstances,” Houchin said. He said Rainbolt wasn’t eligible for a short-term of imprisonment, there was no amount of restitution that would make this right, he wasn’t a victim of his victim, he had no dependents, no PTSD and said, at 21, age was not a mitigating factor, either.

“He’s 21 years old. It’s about time he grew up,” he said.

Houchin said considering age as a mitigating factor was an insult to others in the community his age who were living productive lives.

“They’re going to school, getting jobs, sometimes supporting families,” he said. “We expect you to do this stuff.”

Houchin argued against Rainbolt’s difficult childhood being counted in his favor as well.

“Nothing about his childhood is extreme,” he said. “He didn’t suffer physical abuse. Unfortunately, many children in this community are going through the same thing with poor role models.”

Houchin asked Medlock for a sentence of 65 years, with no time suspended.

‘No one can explain this’

Clark said much of what the state considered aggravating factors, he considered mitigating ones. Mitigating factors, he added, were not rewards for defendants, just things a judge could look at to give individualized sentences for individual cases.

Rainbolt had no previous criminal convictions. The daily marijuana use was undeniably illegal, but when all the role models in your life exhibit that behavior, it’s difficult to understand it’s wrong.

“People at a basketball game might argue a foul isn’t a foul if the ref never blows the whistle,” Clark said. “If that’s what’s modeled, then an individual will not see it as wrong.”

He reminded the court that probation found no causal link between homicide and marijuana use. Along with this, he argued the circumstances surrounding the shooting were unlikely to recur.

“The State of Indiana, with all its resources, can’t give you a motive,” he said. “No one can explain this … If Blake was 6-foot-4 and Josh was 5-foot-10, how do we have a linear shot? The state didn’t do a reconstruction … Whatever occurred out there, these circumstances won’t happen again … Hopefully when he’s released, he’ll be better able to handle these situations.”

Houchin said the offense was unlikely to reoccur because Rainbolt would be in prison, not necessarily because he was unlikely to repeat the behavior of his own volition.

“He shouldn’t get to argue that what you deserve is a mitigating circumstance,” Houchin said later. “When people murder people, they get removed from society … so, no, for 40 years, he won’t commit a murder because he’ll be in prison. When he gets out, he’ll be an old man and old men are less likely to commit murder.”

“Just because he’ll be in jail so he won’t be able to commit the crime again doesn’t mean the mitigator doesn’t apply,” Clark said later in the attorney arguments.
Clark argued that the structured environment in prison would be beneficial and he would not need as harsh of a sentence in order for him to respond positively.

“He’ll have a structured environment, no access to drugs and he’ll be able to look into dealing with his cognitive issues,” Clark said.

His age, too, Clark said, was a mitigating factor. Rainbolt was 20 at the time of the murder, out of high school less than two years, when he graduated with a GPA of 1.14.

“He had no prior life experiences to prepare him to prevent the events of January 9, 2017,” Clark listed in the PowerPoint slide shown explaining this. “He wasn’t mature enough to handle the situation like an adult and was not capable of good decision making before or after the homicide.”

“He was probably more mentally a juvenile than an adult,” Clark said. “What he saw in family and friends was not exemplary. No long-term jobs, marijuana use, living day to day, no goals … He was mainly around people his own age.”

He said clinical psychologist Dr. Bart Ferraro explained Rainbolt, due to a fragmented psychology, wasn’t capable of making good decisions during his testimony earlier in the day. You can read more on that here.

Clark said in pleading guilty, Rainbolt has accepted responsibility and he’s also expressed remorse, writing the letter he read earlier and becoming emotional during the police interrogation, pre-sentence investigation and throughout the sentencing hearing.

“A lack of remorse speaks to disdain for the court, not necessarily showing visible signs of emotional remorse,” Clark said. “He never said, ‘just do what you want with me,’ or ‘I don’t care.’”

He accused the state of going into “chicken and egg” reasoning when it came to why Rainbolt, with his chaotic thought patterns, wouldn’t tell why he shot his best friend.

“The state says, ‘You haven’t told us why,’ but the psychological exam says he can’t express that, that it’s not in his ability to do so,” Clark said. “Then the state says, ‘Well, then you aren’t remorseful.’ If he never gets treatment, he can’t express remorse … It’s a circular argument … The psychological evaluation never claimed he wasn’t sane or responsible … it explains how his remorse doesn’t meet expectations.”

Houchin argued that Rainbolt’s not telling what happened, whether intentional or related to an inability to tell, isn’t an aggravating factor, but shouldn’t be mitigating one, either.

“The explanation for why he can’t doesn’t make sense,” he said. “Disregard it. Look at his actions. If he were remorseful, he would have acted differently. This case and these people deserve an aggravated sentence.”

Clark argued Rainbolt had no motive. He gained nothing from Box-Skinner’s death, it wasn’t in his character and there remained “unique and unexplained forensic evidence” (referring to the men’s height difference and the trajectory of the bullet the gun barrel into Box-Skinner’s head). Rainbolt lacks a criminal history, a history of violence and had previously expressed friendship and closeness with the victim. His difficult childhood was also a factor that prompted his escape and avoidance coping mechanisms that resulted in his behavior. While Clark conceded that a difficult childhood didn’t make someone into a murderer, it has been found to be a mitigating circumstance.

Clark also claimed Rainbolt wasn’t the “worst of the worst.”

“You can’t claim it was a brutal murder,” he said. “It was a brutal act. Murder is a brutal act. It was a single gunshot. There was no other trauma to the body … Blake’s death was within seconds or instantaneous. It was a terrible crime, a brutal event, but the actions themselves were not the worst of the worst.”

The impact of the family’s grief, Clark said, was already taken into account with the punishment of 45 to 65 years in prison and that the family of the victim was suffering no greater loss than any other family would after a loved one was killed.

“[Box-Skinner] had no dependents,” Clark said. “He knew the circumstances, he knew what was going on in the home and agreed to leave the building with Josh.”

Clark requested a suspended sentence of 55 years with 10 suspended (meaning 45 years executed) and five years of probation, saying suspended sentences were “real and functional sentences.”

On this, Houchin also disagreed.

“If there is no difference in a suspended sentence, they wouldn’t ask for it and we wouldn’t ask you not to give it,” he said.

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