INTENSIVE – Professional dancer Adam McKinney formerly with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and choreographer Sarah Ashkin lead a rehearsal of an upcoming Summer Dance Intensive production Thursday in Allen Hall. Students will dance a 25-minute program Saturday 7 p.m. in the Performing Arts Center. A five dollar donation is suggested at the door. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

Judge Gives Yerkes 45-Year Sentence

Sentinel Staff Writer
    Reuben Yerkes was sentenced this morning to 45 years in prison for shooting and killing his girlfriend, 28-year-old Ali Clayton, last May.
    The sentence handed down by Superior Court Judge Trevor Stephens was the same as the terms in a plea agreement Yerkes signed in June when he agreed to plead guilty to murder in the second degree.
    The sentence was 60 years, with 15 suspended. Yerkes, 40, will be eligible to apply for discretionary parole after 15 years in prison, and will be eligible for mandatory parole after 30, based on good time.

Reuben Yerkes, left, listens as victims’ statements are made at his sentencing hearing this morning at the Sitka Courthouse.  At right are public defender Nathan Lockwood and court worker Lisa Langenfeld. (Sentinel Photo by James Poulson)

    Extra chairs were brought into the courtroom to accommodate the more than 60 members of the public at the three-hour hearing. Most were friends and family of Ali Clayton, and about six were there to support Yerkes, including his parents.
    The judge explained that the sentence for second-degree murder could be up to 99 years, and the benchmark under court guidelines is 20 to 30 years. He said he would agree to the higher 45 years of hard time in the plea agreement between Prosecutor Amanda Browning and Yerkes, who was represented by public defender Nathan Lockwood.
    “I’m able to make these findings because of aggravating factors,” Stephens said. “Forty-five years is materially above that benchmark sentence.”
    Those factors were recognizing that the crime was intentional, premeditated and involved domestic violence.
    Prior to the sentencing the court heard victim impact statements from Clayton’s parents, her brother and two of her friends. Yerkes’ mother read a statement for the defendant, and he spoke on his own behalf, expressing regret.
    It was an emotional morning, with many in the gallery crying during the victim impact statements. Some people walked out the courtroom when Yerkes and his mother read their statements, and the judge on a few occasions reminded the audience to abstain from applauding, and to observe courtroom decorum.
    The first charges the state leveled against Yerkes were one count of murder in the first degree and two counts of murder in the second. Under the plea agreement entered on June 7, the state dismissed the two charges of second degree murder, and reduced the first degree charge to murder in the second degree.
    He has been in custody since the morning of May 8, 2017, when he entered the Sitka police station, and said he had shot and killed his girlfriend in her home on Davidoff Street.
    Statements by Ali’s parents, Paula and Steve Clayton, her brother Luke, and two of her best friends told of Ali Clayton’s bright and giving personality; the pain and suffering the murder caused to her friends and family; the lasting trauma to her family and the community; and the need for Yerkes to be punished with a sentence as long as life in prison.
    “When Mr. Yerkes chose to take a gun, place it on my daughter’s head, pull the trigger four times, resulting in my daughter’s death, he committed a litany of wrongs,” Paula Clayton told the judge. “I can’t even begin to tell them all because I face new wrongs all the time. Some examples are: the terror I feel when someone asks how many children I have. How my heart sinks into my stomach when I see a young pregnant woman, the distress I feel when I leave town – I feel like I am leaving my daughter, the heartache that comes when I think of something I want to tell my girl and remember she is gone, the worry that I have that I am no longer the mom I was to my wonderful son, and I am no longer the wife I was to my loving husband. The list goes on and on.”
    She said she is currently serving “life sentences.... punishment I did not earn or deserve,” from the nightmare of what occurred the night of Ali’s murder, the pain of thinking about the future that Ali would miss, and the abiding anger she feels against the man who killed her.
    “I always taught my kids that they can hate cauliflower and they can hate squash but do not hate people,” Paula said. “I am eating my words now because I do hate Mr. Yerkes with every cell of my body. I despise him. I loathe him. Some people will say I need to learn to forgive him but they are not experiencing this trauma. I know you don’t love someone as much as I loved my daughter and ever forgive the man who so senselessly and violently ripped her from our lives. I will go to my death with anger, hate and thoughts of revenge at a magnitude I surely would have never experienced had Mr. Yerkes not shot my daughter to death.”
    She and others who spoke talked about the life that will be denied to Ali Clayton, including contributing to society, living out her dreams and having a family.
    Steve Clayton said he believes that Yerkes should never be released, in light of the “well hidden” guns belonging to Yerkes that were found in Ali’s house and on Yerkes’ boat.
    “These weapons are designed to kill people,” Steve Clayton said in his written statement. “Also, hidden away on boats in harbors were more sniper-like weapons along with literature on how to become a sniper. In my opinion this individual is wired to kill. He took my daughter’s life. He is a danger to society. It is my strong opinion he should never be allowed back into society.” Steve pounded his hand on the table to emphasize his last comment.
    Luke Clayton, whose statement was read by his father, told of the grief and anger he continues to suffer from the death of his sister.
    “It’s just simply a hole in your heart that can never be filled,” he said. “So even though I’ve gotten over the stage of trying to fix things in my mind, I’m still having difficulty adjusting to a life without her. Many times, whether it be new friends I meet or the airplane passenger I’m talking to, I will be asked if I have siblings. I tell people who don’t know me that I am an only child. Saying these words and even typing them now haunts me.”
    The prosecutor and public defender urged the judge to accept the plea agreement and the proposed sentence.
    Both said the sentence would not remedy the crime that was committed, but would resolve the case and start to bring closure to the family and the community.
    Browning said the sentence would take into account Yerkes’ conduct in committing the crime, the facts of the case and the harm to the Clayton family.
    However, she added, “The agreement we have reached will not be able to fill the void that they feel; the Claytons have lost their daughter.”
    “The recommended sentence is not about placing a worth on Ali, the recommended sentence is about reaching a final resolution that allows the Clayton family to have closure,” Browning said. “Had this matter proceeded forth to trial the state believes there would have been a conviction on murder in the first degree.
    “However, the state recognizes based on the evidence that there is potential the jury would find the defendant was acting in the heat of passion. Had a jury found this to be the heat of passion case, the conviction would likely have been for murder in the second degree.”
    Browning said the sentence is justified, with the recognition of the seriousness of the offense, and the fact that it involved domestic violence. At the time of her death Ali Clayton and Reuben Yerkes had been in a dating relationship for 10 weeks.
    “As the court is aware, domestic violence is something our state has been (dealing) with for years,” Browning said. “It is so significant that the Legislature has created an aggravator specifically to address domestic violence. It’s particularly dangerous because it occurs in a home, behind closed doors, and away from the view of others. In other words it’s often hidden ... It affects all socioeconomic classes, genders and ages of people. It’s not a random act, it’s a way of controlling the situation.”
    Public defender Nathan Lockwood, in supporting the plea agreement, said there is nothing the court can do to alleviate the pain to the Clayton family and community.
    “That pain is real, it’s deep and it touches all parts of the community, but nothing this court can do to take that pain away; there’s nothing this court can do with this sentence to bring Ms. Clayton back,” Lockwood said. “But by accepting this agreement the court is holding Mr. Yerkes accountable, holding Mr. Yerkes responsible, responsible for causing that pain, and hopefully providing closure to this community and the Clayton family. This has been Mr. Yerkes’ hope for this resolution.”
    Lockwood said Yerkes told a friend that he likes Ali’s parents and didn’t want to put them through any more stress, which is why he wanted to plead guilty instead of going to trial.
    Lockwood said the sentence satisfies all of the “Chaney criteria,” sentencing guidelines which include deterrence, isolation, community condemnation, reaffirmation of societal norms and rehabilitation.
    He said Yerkes was a good candidate for rehabilitation based on his intelligence, lack of prior criminal record and his education. The public defender said the chance of Yerkes’ re-offending once released was low; that the defendant has taken responsibility and shown remorse since the crime and his report to the police shortly afterward.
    The defendant’s mother, Caren Yerkes, said she was “shocked beyond my ability to speak” when she heard his son had killed his girlfriend.
    “I was sure there was some horrible mistake,” she said. “What we were being told was not believable. I have no understanding, no explanation of why Reuben caused the death of Ali Clayton. His actions are inexplicable to me. The only thing I can offer this court is my observations ....”
    She said her son was remorseful to the point of being suicidal after killing Ali, and remorse and sorrow are constantly with him. She said she and her husband moved to Juneau to be able to visit and support him where he was being held at the Lemon Creek Correction Center, and “remind him of his reason to live.” She said her son plans to embark on a correspondence course to earn an MBA. She said she will continue to support him through his sentence and when released so he may “once again be a contributing, functioning person.”
    Reuben Yerkes stood to address the judge, and at times had trouble speaking. He apologized to his family, the Claytons and Ali herself. He said he is full of remorse and regret for the pain and suffering he has caused.
    “Nothing Ali did that night justifies her death or excuses my actions.” he said. “I killed Ali. I can never take that back. Even though I would give anything of myself if it meant she would live, I know there is nothing I can do to bring her back or lessen the pain that I have caused. All that matters now is that Ali isn’t here, and people are suffering greatly because of my actions. Words cannot express the sorrow, regret, and shame I feel knowing I took away the life of a kind and loving woman, a woman who should have had a bright future. I cannot begin to know the pain and suffering which I have caused.”
    One of Ali Clayton’s friends, Melina Munoz, directing her comments at Reuben Yerkes, said:
    “I hate you, I hate you with a passion so deep, so raw that I shake with so much rage and sadness that it makes me sick to my stomach. Ali was a gem, she was a beautiful soul. She was everything to us and you are nothing. You are a monster and you are scum.”
    In accepting the agreement for sentencing, Stephens said the crime is among the most serious, but that “there is nothing I can do ... that will be commensurate to Ali Clayton’s life.”
    “What we’re really focusing on is the conduct involved and state of mind Mr. Yerkes had when he engaged in that conduct,” he said. The evidence showed that the crime was intentional and premeditated, and that Ali Clayton “likely knew she was going to die,” the judge said.
    “The horror, the terror are simply beyond my words to describe,” Stephens said. “She knew what was coming.”
    The judge acknowledged the number of victims in the crime, including families, friends and the community; and said he didn’t know enough about Yerkes to judge his prospects for rehabilitation.
    Upon Yerkes’ release from prison, he will be on probation for 10 years. Terms include he is not to have contact with the Clayton family, he is not to possess firearms, he is not to consume alcohol or be in a bar or liquor store, he is to undergo substance abuse and mental health evaluations, and counseling as recommended. His belongings that were seized will be forfeited to the state, and among other provisions of probation on release he will be subject to warrantless searches by the state.

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