A Lincoln County judge has lamented the sentencing options available in the case of a Depoe Bay man who shot his partner in the head while cleaning his gun, calling the sentence of 30 days in jail and three years' probation "a travesty."
Judge Sheryl Bachart said the sentence does not compare to the harm that Kenneth Lyle Ames caused when he recklessly discharged the weapon but said sentencing guidelines prevented her from imposing harsher punishment.
"There's nothing I can do," she told Ames' victim, Lovena Terry at the Jan. 13 sentencing hearing in Lincoln County Circuit Court.
The court heard Ames and Terry had lived together for nine years at the time the shooting occurred on Oct. 24 at the couple's S.E. Sunnyview Lane home.
Ames admitted being drunk while cleaning his .22 caliber pistol and unintentionally firing a single round into Terry's head as she sat watching TV.
The court heard Ames dialed 911 and threw the weapon on to the porch, where law enforcement officers found it as they arrived in force.
Terry was airlifted to Portland where she underwent emergency surgery.
Chief Deputy District Attorney Marcia Buckley said prosecutors did not charge Ames right away because they did not know whether they would be dealing with a homicide.
"We didn't know if Ms. Terry was going to live or die," she said.
Buckley said that when prosecutors eventually filed charges six weeks later, arresting deputies found Ames "drunk as a skunk" in his home.
Ames disputed the claim, telling Bachart he had taken "a sip of a beer" because he knew he was going to jail.
Bachart said she was "deeply troubled" that Ames would consume any amount of alcohol in the wake of the incident.
"It's the biggest insult that you could do to these people here," she said, "when their lives have been turned upside down by your actions - and you continue to drink?"
The court heard from Terry's mother, Linda Amstutz, who said she is now acting as full time caregiver to her daughter, who suffers lasting effects from the shooting.
"She can't dress herself," Amstutz said, "she can't cook; she can't hold anything with her right hand; she has trouble walking; she has nightmares - ungodly, unreal; she shakes all the time if she hears any loud racket; and she doesn't want me three feet from her."
Amstutz said she hopes Terry might be able to move into an apartment in six months to a year but predicted a full recovery could take much longer.
"She could be looking at years and years and years or not being able to function as a 47-year-old woman," she said.
In a faltering voice and clearly struggling to form sentences, Terry told the court that she wants Ames to get help with his drinking problem.
"I just don't want this to happen to anybody," she said. "I don't want them to hurt."
Amstutz said Ames' reliance on alcohol had grown to the point where he was drunk every day.
"There was a time when Mr. Ames was a very good man, a very good man," she said. "But that all changed in the last couple or three years and he has become someone that I don't think even he is proud of."
Defense attorney Alan Biedermann, said his client is "more grateful than words can say" that Terry survived the shooting, which he said was a result of drunkenness.
"Alcohol has been a curse in his life," Biedermann said. "It remains so."
Ames told Bachart he only realized he was an alcoholic after being taken to jail, where he talked with other inmates about Alcoholics Anonymous and read a book on alcoholism.
"I have to repair the damage I've done to myself before I can fix and help anyone else," he said.
When Bachart asked if Ames had anything else to add, he said he did not know what else to say.
"There's nothing I can say to make any of this better," he told her.
"An apology might be a start," Bachart said.
Ames said he is "truly sorry" about the incident, adding that he pictures it morning and night.
Asked what he would view as a suitable sentence, Ames said any punishment should include access to professional help - something he said is lacking in jail.
"All you get behind these bars is someone taking care of you and telling you what to do," he said.
Bachart took issue with Ames' complaint, saying the roughly 30 days he spent in jail were "insignificant."
"The real test is going to be what you do when you are released," she said.
Abiding by Oregon sentencing guidelines, Bachart imposed a 30-day jail sentence for Ames' conviction on one count of third-degree assault, a Class C felony.
Bachart said it was ironic that she could have imposed a longer jail term by recording the conviction as a misdemeanor but that doing so would require a finding that a felony conviction would be overly harsh.
"I can't make that finding,' she said.
In return for Ames' guilty plea, prosecutors asked the court to dismiss two misdemeanor charges of negligently wounding another and recklessly endangering another person.
District Attorney Rob Bovett said the lesson from the case is clear.
"You clean your firearm when you are not drunk," he said, adding: "Alcohol and firearms do not mix - ever."
Bachart ordered Ames to pay fines and fees totaling $1,770, plus $241 restitution for medical costs relating to Terry's injury.
The court heard the amount is low because Medicare and Medicaid paid most of the bills and are not seeking restitution.
Ames' probation conditions include no contact with Terry or her caregivers, alcohol treatment and certified attendance at Alcoholics Anonymous.
Bachart said the most important condition is that Ames avoid alcohol completely.
"If you want to take one step forward into making right on this," she said, "and really show you understand the depth of your actions - comply with that condition."