Two soldiers from the same Joint Base Lewis-McChord infantry battalion experienced two very different kinds of justice when they came home from training events a year apart and carried out deadly crimes.
Pvt. Jeremiah Hill, prosecuted in Army court, received a sentence of 45 years in prison for knifing another soldier in the heart on a Lakewood street.
The rookie soldier from a poor Chicago family had an Army-provided defense attorney and rarely showed remorse when he testified.
Spc. Skylar Nemetz, prosecuted in Pierce County Superior Court, last week received a sentence of less than 14 years for causing the death of his wife, Danielle, when he accidentally shot her in the head with a rifle.
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His Northern California family reached deep into their savings to hire an experienced private attorney. Nemetz wept on the witness stand and persuaded a jury he didn’t mean to kill his wife.
The disparities in outcomes for two soldiers from the 5th Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment show the differences in what can happen when the Army and Pierce County carry out their informal agreement to decide which agency should prosecute soldiers who commit crimes outside of JBLM.
Hill could have been prosecuted in a civilian court, where he likely would not have not received much more than 20 years for killing Geike, said the county prosecutor who handled the case for the year before it moved to military court.
That same offense, put in front of a military jury, got him more than double that time behind bars.
Believing the soldiers on the jury would agree that Geike’s death was an accident, Hill couldn’t contain his anger over his punishment. After Geike’s family left the courtroom, he shouted an expletive that revealed his frustration.
Had the Army taken Nemetz’s case, the infantryman with almost three years of military experience would have had to explain to other trained soldiers how he mishandled the rifle and killed his wife.
“You were an expert,” Superior Court Judge Jack Nevin, himself a retired Army judge, said before he sentenced Nemetz. “And the level of the expertise that you had shows the degree of recklessness. This isn’t someone who picked up a weapon for the first time.”
Open doors between prosecutors
JBLM and the Pierce County Prosecutor’s Office began opening the doors to trading criminal cases about two years ago, said deputy prosecutor John Sheeran.
It’s a common procedure in military communities around the country where criminal suspects could be prosecuted in different courts.
For whatever reason, Sheeran said, the county and the base were fairly unfamiliar with each other when the Army and Air Force reached out to the prosecutor’s office in 2014.
If that case came along today, I’m sure they would have had it in a matter of weeks. We have a better relationship now.
Pierce County deputy prosecutor John Sheeran
In a series of conversations, Army and Air Force attorneys invited civilian prosecutors out to the base, and the groups talked about the kinds of cases they’d prefer to prosecute.
They grew friendly, as Army emails released in the Nemetz trial show. Attorneys called each other “brother” and tried to ease obstacles for each other.
“Be certain we stand ready to help and contribute in any way we can,” an Army attorney wrote to a county deputy prosecutor just after Nemetz’s arrest.
Army attorneys did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Pierce County tends to want military-related cases that involve civilians, or some cases in which crime victims might benefit from county-run domestic violence or sex assault services.
Generally, Sheeran said, JBLM wants cases in which soldiers commit crimes against other soldiers or when the majority of witnesses are military service members.
The Army also has resources it can tap to fly a victim’s family members to court hearings.
Geike’s family lived out of state and was able to use Army resources to attend the trial. Geike’s friends who were with him during the stabbing were soldiers, and so was the group that was out with Hill that night.
Hill sat in the Pierce County jail for 14 months before the Army took his trial. Today, Sheeran said, it wouldn’t take a year to move a case such as Hill’s over to JBLM.
“If that case came along today, I’m sure they would have had it in a matter of weeks,” he said. “We have a better relationship now.”
Defense attorneys aren’t at the table in determining which agency takes a case. It’s a decision that belongs with the prosecutors, although a defense attorney might use it for an appeal after a verdict.
“We don’t have any say about that,” said Michael Kawamura, the director of the Pierce County Office of Assigned Counsel.
Similar charges, different convictions
Hill and Nemetz offered similar cases to the extent that they were infantrymen returning from a training exercise who committed deadly crimes in Lakewood.
Each claimed he did not intend to take his victim’s life, although Hill seemed to be looking for a fight the night he stabbed Geike, whereas Nemetz said he was simply clearing a rifle when he accidentally shot his wife.
Pierce County initially charged Hill, 25, with first-degree murder. Prosecutors reduced the charge to second-degree murder, indicating they did not believe they could persuade a jury that Hill meant to kill Geike.
When the Army took the case in December 2014, it escalated the charges to premeditated murder. His court-martial panel in April 2015 convicted him of a lesser charge, murder without premeditation, but gave him a long sentence.
I’m sorry about the death. I killed him. There’s nothing to do to take it back.
Nemetz, 20 at the time of the killing, was charged with murder, meaning prosecutors believed he purposely shot his wife. His jury last month found him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Defense attorneys said the differences in their sentences centered on Hill being convicted of a crime that reflected an intent to harm another person.
By contrast, Nemetz’s manslaughter conviction reflected the jury’s determination that his wife’s death was a reckless accident.
“In the civilian and the military side, the parameters for something you do intentionally are much higher compared to something that you do that is reckless but not intentional,” said Mike Berens, a defense attorney who represented one of Hill’s co-defendants.
Another difference, Berens said, was Hill’s callous performance on the witness stand.
Whereas Nemetz wept for his wife, Hill portrayed his crime as an unfortunate occurrence that unfolded between two groups of young men who confronted each other on the street after a night of drinking in October 2013.
That night, Hill and four others approached Geike and two of his buddies on Pacific Highway Southwest. They exchanged words, but appeared ready to go their separate ways. All of them served in the Army.
That’s when Hill suddenly grabbed Geike and stabbed him in the chest.
Berens noted that defense attorneys had some evidence they used to suggest Geike was armed with a knife, too, and that Hill might have felt threatened in some way.
But when he testified, Hill was “pretty stone cold, no regret,” Berens said.
Hill’s family did not respond to requests for comment for this story. At his trial, they shared memories about him as a fun-loving young man who loved basketball and looked out for his younger sister.
In a flat voice at the trial, Hill apologized to Geike’s family.
“I’m sorry about the death,” he said. “I killed him. There’s nothing to do to take it back.”