Three former Seabees who beat and seriously injured a homosexual man on a Port Hueneme Beach in May were sentenced Friday to a year in Ventura County Jail.
Superior Court Judge Lawrence Storch decided that "in the interests of justice," Michael Breninger and Kenneth Cummings, both 20, and Sean McGeown, 18, should go to jail rather than state prison.
Under the law, the judge had to impose prison terms of up to seven years unless he found that the interests of justice required a lesser sentence.
The defendants admitted that they lured Richard Heffernan, 54, to the beach last May 19 after meeting him at an adult bookstore. While Breninger held the victim down, the other defendants kicked and beat him so hard that most of the bones in his face were broken and had to be replaced by metal plates, investigators said.
The only motive for the attack, the defendants said, was that Heffernan was gay. They pleaded guilty in June to assault by means likely to cause great bodily injury, and to a special allegation that they did cause such injuries.
"The circumstances surrounding this beating are reprehensible," Storch said. "That word doesn't carry sufficient impact."
But because of the defendants' youth and their lack of criminal records, a jail term followed by five years of probation was enough punishment, the judge said.
As part of the deal, Storch insisted that the men give up credit for the five months they have been in jail while awaiting sentencing. They began serving the one-year term on Friday and will be eligible for early release after eight months.
"This is a very difficult case for me," the judge said. "I have thought about it a long time."
Deputy Dist. Atty. Patricia M. Murphy agreed that it was a tough call for the judge. But she insisted that the men deserved a prison term because the injuries were so severe.
"It's a life sentence for Mr. Heffernan," she said, adding that the victim cannot drive or work, suffers loss of memory and needs more surgery to restore his vision. "These are the most severe injuries we've seen in a long time in this courtroom."
She said the year in jail is "a slap on the hand compared to what Mr. Heffernan has to suffer for the rest of his life."
Dist. Atty. Michael D. Bradbury said he also believes that the three men should have been sent to prison. "I hope this lenient sentence will not send the wrong message," Bradbury said.
Heffernan did not attend the sentencing and could not be reached for comment. At a July 17 hearing, he told Storch that he forgave his attackers and just wanted them to get help.
But Heffernan's sister, who attended Friday's sentencing, said she was "very, very disappointed" with the sentence.
"For an act of violence like that, they should be in custody as long as the victim is suffering," said the sister, who asked not to be identified. "They'll be out and running long before he has gotten his act together."
She said her brother had no medical insurance and has been "wiped out" by medical bills.
A probation investigator's report said Heffernan has incurred more than $45,000 in medical bills and has lost $23,000 in income since the attack. The three men will have to make restitution as part of their probation.
Deputy Public Defender Brian Boles called the jail sentence "a fair and just result." In addition to the jail time and restitution order, the three defendants have received less than honorable discharges from the Navy. They were stationed at the Naval Construction Training Center in Port Hueneme.
Claire Connelly, head of the Camarillo-based Gay and Lesbian Counseling Service, said the sentence was fair in light of Heffernan's request that his attackers get treatment. "This will give them a year to think about what they want to do with the rest of their lives," Connelly said.
In a penciled letter to Storch, McGeown said he hopes his experience will have a positive outcome when he returns to his native New York. He said he plans to "participate in the community in some way to combat homophobic attitudes and actions on the part of non-gays. I believe I can use my experience to help change attitudes."