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By ANDREW SHEELER
Daily News Staff Writer
After hearing considerable, emotional testimony at the sentencing hearing for Steven S. Cook on Thursday, Ketchikan Superior Court Judge William Carey sentenced Cook to three years, two years suspended, of incarceration for the criminally negligent homicide of Cook’s friend Thomas Guthrie IV in May of 2012.
The sentencing brought to close a criminal case that struck a rift between two Metlakatla families, both of which had members present Thursday.
With good behavior, Cook, 35, could be released from custody in eight months.
In October, Cook pleaded guilty to the criminally negligent homicide — the lowest level charge for causing a death — and second-degree assault.
Both charges stem from an incident that occurred on May 28, 2012, when Cook killed Guthrie by placing him in a chokehold while playfully wrestling. Both men were intoxicated at the time, and autopsy results for Guthrie later revealed he had a blood alcohol content in excess of 0.28. Guthrie was 32 when he died.
Under the plea agreement, Cook could be sentenced to no more than a year in jail. As criminally negligent homicide is a class B felony, any sentence shorter than a year would require dispensation from a three-judge panel.
Prior to Carey’s sentence pronouncement, Cook’s attorney David Rosendin had two witnesses speak on Cook’s behalf.
The first witness was Cook’s stepfather, Raymond Baines of Metlakatla.
Baines told the court that he had witnessed Cook, Guthrie, and another friend — Santana Atkinson of Metlakatla — "rough-housing" on multiple occasions.
"It was all playful fun," Baines said. They never fought "in anger."
When asked by Carey, Baines conceded that drinking and even playfully wrestling was dangerous.
Atkinson testified next.
Guthrie was "my brother," Atkinson said. "He was my best friend in the whole, entire world."
Atkinson said that Cook, too, was a brother to him. The three were very close, having known one another since elementary school.
Atkinson described growing with Cook and Guthrie.
"We were just boys from the res," he said.
Atkinson said that it was regular for them to play fight, and he testified that the last time he had play fought was "about a week ago."
"We play tap-out," he said, calling it a way to "pretty much prove our manhoods."
Atkinson said he bore no ill will toward Cook for the incident in 2012.
"That might have been me that did that to him," he said. "I know in my heart (Guthrie) would not want him to go to jail."
Atkinson testified that he had not seen Cook consume alcohol since Guthrie’s death.
Cook was the last person to take the stand. He reiterated that he had quit drinking. Cook also said he was attempting to quit smoking marijuana, though he had relapsed. A Ketchikan Indian Community assessor tested Cook’s urine and found evidence of marijuana-usage last year, which Cook initially had denied.
Cook said that he was taking steps to get his life put back together, but that his family would be secure if he were to be incarcerated.
After the testimony, District Attorney Steve West spoke.
He called the event tragic, and said Guthrie and Cook were wrestling around "like they see on TV with professional wrestlers."
Neither Cook nor Guthrie had the training or fitness of professional wrestlers though, West said.
He spoke about the danger of choke-holds, of how even police avoid using them because of their potential lethality.
West said Cook was a good prospect for rehabilitation — with only a handful of minor, alcohol-related prior convictions — but that Cook had a substance abuse problem, as evidenced by his inability to abstain from marijuana use.
After West spoke, Guthrie’s parents — Thomas and Judy Guthrie of Metlakatla — were invited to speak.
"It’s been a hard ... almost two years since we lost our son," Thomas Guthrie said. His voice thick with emotion, Guthrie recounted hearing about his son’s death, which initially was called a heart attack. It was only nine weeks later, he said, that the actual cause of death was determined.
The senior Guthrie said he and his wife had been sober for more than 20 years, and that he wanted the same for Cook.
"I don’t want to walk around with anger. I want to walk a good road," he said.
Thomas Guthrie talked about the pain he still felt over losing a child.
"He should be putting me away, not us putting him away," he said.
Whatever Cook’s sentence, Thomas Guthrie said, he’d be able to go home afterward, something the victim could never do.
Judy Guthrie added that "We really care about (Cook).
"No matter what happens ... we really do want Steven to have a good life," she said.
In his statement, Rosendin said it would be "manifestly unjust" to incarcerate Cook for actions that, had they not resulted in a fatality, would not be illegal.
"In this case, there wasn’t any illegal conduct going on," he said. "The last thing the government would want to do is tell young men not to wrestle."
Rosendin said wrestling was an accepted part of society. He asked Carey to avoid a long jail sentence in favor of community work service or even a short period of "shock" incarceration.
The last person to speak before Carey pronounced his sentence was Cook.
"I guess I just want to apologize to both families," he said. "I guess I just never thought something like this could happen."
Tearfully, Cook told the courtroom that Guthrie’s death "was my fault."
Carey conceded that the case was a challenging one to adjudicate.
"This is a very difficult, emotionally wrenching case," he said. "To a great degree, this is a lesson about alcohol."
Carey discussed the autopsy findings, which found that it might have been possible to resuscitate Guthrie had Cook and others around at the time not been intoxicated.
While Carey conceded that wrestling was not a crime, he said "it does evolve into a crime when someone is dead."
Carey said that Cook was no stranger to alcohol abuse, which factored into his sentencing decision. Cook’s marijuana usage was given lesser weight, he said.
"Marijuana’s not the problem, anyway. Alcohol’s the problem," he said.
Carey told Cook that there simply was no clear and compelling reason to set a sentence shorter than a year. He added that "we’re talking about a matter of months, not years."
Cook is legally forbidden from drinking alcohol for the duration of his sentence.
Having rendered his decision, Carey told Cook that he had 30 days to file an appeal.
Though Cook’s sentence calls for incarceration, Carey and Rosendin discussed the possibility of Cook being held on house arrest through an electronic monitoring ankle bracelet. Rosendin will request house arrest for Cook at a future hearing.