A Michigan man who beat, raped, and murdered a 5-year-old girl as a teenager will remain in prison for the rest of his life after unsuccessfully arguing that he had been rehabilitated after spending nearly 30 years in prison, a judge ruled earlier this week.
Jason Benjamin Symonds, 45, was 16 when he viciously attacked and killed 5-year-old Nicole VanNoty in 1994. The victim was a playmate of his younger stepsister, who Symonds lured into the basement of an abandoned building owned by his father.
“Once in the basement, defendant sexually molested the victim, and struck her numerous times with the blunt edge of a hatchet, with a wooden dowel wrapped with wire, and with a metal rod, killing her,” a 1997 state court of appeals decision explains. “Defendant then placed her naked body in a black garbage bag and buried her behind the abandoned house. The following day, defendant allegedly incriminated himself to a friend, and after agreeing to be interviewed by the police, defendant confessed that he had killed the victim.”
Symonds was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in 1995.
Since then, in 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory life sentences for children are not constitutional, can only be applied to children who are convicted of homicide, and even in such cases, “a lifetime in prison is a disproportionate sentence for all but the rarest of children, those whose crimes reflect irreparable corruption.”
Every juvenile lifer sentenced before that high court ruling will be given the opportunity to bid for resentencing due to developmental differences in the brains of still-growing adolescents.
A psychologist testified on Symonds’ behalf during his multiple-day resentencing hearing this week, WWMT reported, saying the defendant had truly been rehabilitated and deserved a second chance.
Dr. Matthew Mendel testified that he spent 12 hours with Symonds over two days. In prison, the convicted rapist and killer documented his history of sexual abuse, racism, and emotional neglect, the psychologist testified. Symonds worked through that trauma over 29 years, Mendel said, and “will never forgive himself” for what he did to the little girl.
Symonds himself expressed contrition and accepted culpability.
“I raped and killed an innocent 5-year-old girl,” attorneys for the condemned man said at a recent hearing, reading from a statement, Kalamazoo-based CBS/CW affiliate WWMT reported. “I know nothing I say will make up for the loss, but I just want to say I’m so sorry.”
The defendant’s appeal team also testified on his behalf.
“What Jason has accomplished especially given where he comes from is extraordinary,” Symonds’ attorney Jessica Newton said, the TV station reported. “If he is not rehabilitated, no one is.”
But advocates for the state and the victim’s family also testified to offer a different – unredeemable – perspective.
“Justice won’t take away the pain I’ve suffered every day,” Robin Buonodono, VanNoty’s mother, said in an impact statement, WWMT reported. “She didn’t get a second chance, and he shouldn’t either.”
Calhoun County Prosecutor David Gilbert suggested there was never any chance for a child killer to rehabilitate.
“There are no 5-year-olds in prison,” the state attorney testified, according to WWMT. “How do you test that he’s rehabilitated from raping and killing 5-year-olds?”
Symonds faced the possibility of being resentenced to a term of years with the possibility of parole.
On Friday afternoon, the judge overseeing the case said Symonds was “entitled to a sentence of life without parole.”
As the decision came down, Buonodono shook both of her fists in the air triumphantly and let out a cry of relief.
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