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Shoplifter gets 7 years. Man whose kids died in fire gets 10. How Platte County sentences

One man was sentenced to 10 years in prison after a house fire killed three children. Another man with a long criminal record will serve seven years for shoplifting $391 of merchandise.

The two sentences were handed down days apart in Platte County earlier this month.

“These two cases are a really good example of the difficult decisions that prosecutors have to make every day,” Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd said in a phone interview.

“My goal is always to be just and fair.”

Zahnd said he is proud that Platte County has drug, DWI, veterans and mental health treatment courts while at the same time, aggressively pursues violent and repeat defendants.

“Those who prey on our community, I believe, many of them deserve prison sentences, sometimes lengthy prison sentences,” he said. “And so I work hard to get it right on both ends of that spectrum.”

Ashley Nellis, co-director of research for The Sentencing Project, a national organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, said the two recent sentencing outcomes illustrate how much “unbridled discretion” prosecutors possess.

“Unfortunately, it’s not terribly surprising to hear about a disparity like that,” she said.

On Feb. 5, David J. Hardy, who faced up to life in prison, pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of a child and possession of a controlled substance, both felonies.

In July 2021, he and four children were at home when a fire broke out, possibly from a torch lighter he used to clean methamphetamine pipes, Zahnd’s office said. Hardy was high on meth and had passed out when the fire started.

Three children, ages 3, 4 and 10 died. Two of them were Hardy’s kids.

In January 2023, William M. Betts was caught shoplifting at the Zona Rosa shopping center. His backpack contained items from Victoria’s Secret, Victoria’s Secret PINK, Dick’s Sporting Goods and Forever 21 valued at $391.

Betts has 26 previous stealing offenses and 30 misdemeanor or ordinance violations on his record dating back to 1991, Zahnd said.

Typically, that amount of merchandise would have led to a misdemeanor charge. But Zahnd’s office used a special provision of Missouri law to charge him with a felony and as a persistent offender to increase the maximum sentence from four to seven years.

Betts, who is Black, was sentenced for stealing on Feb. 1.

Nellis said national research has shown that prosecutors utilize enhanced charging on people of color at a disproportionate rate. Other studies cast doubt on the effectiveness of enhancements and other sentencing tools like three-strikes laws.

Sentences, Nellis continued, are arbitrary amounts of time that often fail to factor in a person’s circumstances, whether that’s a drug addiction, poverty or a mental health issue.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a prison sentence is going to help this property offender get his life together,” she said.

Zahnd said he believes Betts’ sentence was appropriate given his criminal history and that he hopes that this latest prison stint is “the wake up call” that Betts needs. While programs to help Missouri prisoners change have improved, Zahnd acknowledged that “we’ve got a ways to go on that.”

Hardy’s case was more difficult for Zahnd.

He said the victim’s family was not entirely happy with the 10-year sentence and that in some ways, Hardy deserved more. But he had to weigh the risk of taking the case to trial. That could have resulted in an acquittal or a misdemeanor verdict, which would have meant a maximum of one year in jail.

Both men pleaded guilty. Sentencing recommendations are made by prosecutors and defense counsel. Sometimes, like in Hardy’s case they are in agreement. In others, like Betts’ case, where his attorney wanted a 120-day jail term, they are not. Judges ultimately impose sentences.

Kansas City attorney John Picerno said he wasn’t sure Betts’ seven year sentence in state prison was the answer.

“That’s a really, really strenuous sentence to give somebody for what amounted to shoplifting,” he said.

Maybe, he said, a year in county jail would have been more appropriate.

“You’re at basically what do we do with this guy?” Picerno said.

“It’s just an indication that the system does not know what to do with an individual like that.”

On Hardy’s case, Picerno said it looked like the prosecutor’s office factored in that the fire was accidental and that it took the lives of two of Hardy’s children.

“In the grand scheme of things and also based on the fact that in fact, it was accidental, I think that’s an appropriate sentence under the circumstances,” he said.

Attorneys for Betts and Hardy did not respond to requests for comment.