February 9, 2018 at 4:29 PM
A District man who authorities said battled severe mental illness was sentenced to 35 years in prison Friday for fatally stabbing a stranger on a Metro car in front of horrified passengers headed to Fourth of July outings in 2015.
Jasper Spires, 21, sat with his head down for much of the hearing in D.C. Superior Court as family and friends of Kevin Sutherland described the impact of the young man’s slaying. Just months before his death, the 24-year-old had started working for a fundraising group that linked members of Congress with their constituents.
Sutherland’s father, Douglas, said to see his son grow up and then receive a call from police that he had been murdered was “like watching a beautiful movie and just as you’re getting to the good part, the screen goes suddenly black and the credits begin to roll.”
Before the sentence was imposed, Spires addressed the Sutherland family in a statement he read aloud.
“I want to apologize for causing unimaginable pain,” he said. “The pain I caused will be with them and me forever. I am sorry for all the pain I caused and everyone I hurt.”
Spires, a high school graduate who went on to start college, has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, defense attorneys said. His mental illness, prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed, was a contributing factor in the unprovoked attack on Sutherland as the train pulled out of NoMa Metro station. Authorities also have considered whether the assault came during attempted robbery, or drug use played a role, but the violent outburst has never been fully explained.
“Mr. Spires’s mental illness does not excuse him of any of this. But in some way, it provides us with the ‘why’ this happened. And I guess that’s useful for us to have that,” said D.C. Superior Court Judge Judith Bartnoff.
Spires, who graduated from Wilson High School, had been studying environmental engineering at Louisburg College in North Carolina. In 2015, during the second semester of his freshman year, he began hearing voices, hallucinating and receiving what he thought were encoded messages from TV, defense attorneys said.
A few months before the July 4 attack, Spires dropped out. According to his attorney Craig Hickein, Spires, then 19, “hitch-hiked and walked” back to Washington and began living on the streets.
But Spires’s disease, prosecutors argued, did not stop him from carrying a knife, putting on a disguise and a pair of gloves that July day and walking through the Metro station looking for victims to possibly rob.
According to prosecutors, Spires and Sutherland came together in a chance encounter on the Metro platform.
Sutherland brushed past Spires as he rushed onto the Red Line train, heading to meet friends for a holiday celebration. Spires followed Sutherland onto the train. With one hand, he grabbed Sutherland’s cellphone. With the other, he began stabbing and cutting Sutherland. Horrified passengers nearby watched.
Spires then kicked Sutherland, threw his cellphone down and did not take anything else from the dying man. Prosecutors said Spires tried to rob two other passengers, threatened another passenger who tried to call for help, then ran off and discarded the knife.
After Spires fled, two passengers sat on the floor with Sutherland, whom they did not know, until paramedics arrived, prosecutors said.
News of the attack, which unfolded in the middle of the day, stunned the Washington area. Some of the passengers later told authorities that they saw Spires striking Sutherland in the car, but it wasn’t until later, after Sutherland had collapsed, that they realized he had been stabbed.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Macey said the attack “left the city shaken.”
“A subway system that transports millions of people suddenly became more dangerous and tainted by what happened to Mr. Sutherland,” she said.
Spires was arrested two days later and charged with first-degree murder. Since then, he has been in custody between D.C. jail and St. Elizabeths, the District’s psychiatric facility, which is where he is currently housed.
Spires, who pleaded guilty to first-degree, premeditated murder, will have to serve a minimum of 30 years in prison before he is eligible for parole. If Spires had gone to trial and been convicted, he would have faced a maximum sentence of life without parole. Hickein said Spires pushed to take the plea deal.
“He wanted to plead out. But we thought this was a triable case,” Hickein said.
Sutherland’s parents tearfully shared stories about their only child in court. They spoke of Sutherland’s excitement over moving to Washington from their hometown in Connecticut to attend American University, and his decision to remain after his 2013 graduation because of his love for the city. They said he was excited to be in the political hub of the country.
“I love Kevin more than myself. When he was murdered, my life lost all meaning,” said Sutherland’s mother, Theresa, who was wearing a necklace and a lapel pin with Sutherland’s picture.