TRAVERSE CITY — Jorge Alberto Vasquez-Antonio's voice cracked when he thanked 13th Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers for deciding on a sentence that will keep him out of state prison.
"I want to change," Vasquez-Antonio, 16, said.
Rodgers on Friday placed Vasquez-Antonio on juvenile probation and committed him to state wardship, a decision that will keep him in a juvenile facility until he's at least 19. The decision wraps court proceedings for suspects charged in a Jan. 31 attempted robbery stabbing on Northwestern Michigan College's campus.
Vasquez-Antonio's case proved different than the other four suspects sentenced for their roles in the attack. He was 15 when he stabbed Dwight Johnathan Thompson, 36, of Indianapolis, twice in the back in an attempt to steal drugs.
Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Bob Cooney said he deliberately offered a plea that would allow Rodgers to choose to sentence Vasquez-Antonio as an adult like his counterparts, or as a juvenile.
Rodgers said he never before chose a juvenile over an adult sentence in his 24-year career. He found himself swayed by the support of Vasquez-Antonio's friends, teachers and counselors who described an enthusiastic young man, a good soccer player and a committed friend.
"At one level, that's this defendant," he said.
But Rodgers also noted the seriousness of Vasquez-Antonio's crime couldn't be ignored. Defense attorney Philip Settles argued Vasquez-Antonio's past interactions with counselors and teachers showed he had a spark of empathy that could be nurtured in a juvenile facility rather than a state prison.
"With empathy, he's treatable," Settles said.
The sentence keeps Vasquez-Antonio in the Shawano Center in Grayling, which Rodgers recently toured and believed offered a better chance for rehabilitation than prison. Rodgers said he'd hold annual hearings with Vasquez-Antonio. He said probation violations could lead him to impose an adult sentence lasting as many as 35 years.
"The test will be what you do every day," Rodgers said.
Evie Kuncaitis-Huver's son is good friends with Vasquez-Antonio through soccer. She left the hearing with tears in her eyes.
"I'm just thrilled they're treating him as a 15-year-old," she said.