Justice Denied! Mentally Ill Teen Sentenced To Two Life Terms For Crime Others Get 11 Years Maximum

Sana and James Campbell with a family photo of Christopher Sharikas

(9-24-17) Sana Campbell is crying.

She takes a moment to compose herself as she sits across from me at the kitchen table of her Virginia  suburban home with her husband James comforting her, but the tears keep flowing.

Sana has reason to cry. Her son, Christopher Sharikas, has spent close to twenty years – that’s right twenty years –  in prison for a crime that the state’s own voluntary guidelines called for a seven to a maximum eleven years term.

Instead, Christopher Sharikas was sentenced to two life sentences, plus five years, plus twenty more years.

What did Christopher Sharikas do to deserve such a harsh sentence?

He hijacked a car and stabbed its driver once. I’m not minimizing the crime. It was awful. But let’s dig deeper. Christopher was seventeen. That’s right, he was a teenager.

He also had been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and was taking a car because voices were telling him to get to New York City.

“He is the kind of person who makes us feel unsafe,” the assistant commonwealth prosecutor in Arlington was quoted in The Washington Post in a 1998 news account about Christopher’s sentencing.

National studies have found that individuals with mental disorders spend four to seven times longer in jails and prisons than others charged with exactly the same crimes.

But I have never heard of a case as extreme as this one. Two life sentences, plus additional time, for an offense that ordinarily carries an eleven year maximum sentence!

Wait, there’s more.

According to the 1998 newspaper account, then-Arlington Circuit Court Judge Paul F. Sheridan decided to “throw the book” at Christopher Sharikas because Judge Sheridan had become angry at the young defendant.

In November 1997, Christopher had agreed to plead guilty to the carjacking and stabbing but when he appeared before Judge Sheridan for sentencing the following April, Sharikas denied committing the crime.

Remember, Christopher had paranoid schizophrenia, a delusional disorder. He also smirked.

“That is so insulting to the victim!” Judge Sheridan snapped angrily, rejecting a defense attorney’s plea that Sharikas be sent to a mental health facility rather than jail.

Wait, there’s still more. At the time, the carjacking victim worked as an intern in the prosecutor’s office and she was dating an Arlington Police Detective.

Could it be that those two factors also played a role in the harsh sentence?

According to Sana, her son began showing signs of mental problems at an early age, but it was only after he became a teenager that he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and sent for treatment to a local hospital. He was prescribed medication, but his father  didn’t believe his son was mentally ill. A proud Palestinian, the father considered Christopher’s antics as simply “boys being boys,” Sana said. (The couple later divorced.)

“I was an immigrant who didn’t know what to do,” she explains.

Two years later, Christopher committed the carjacking and stabbing while psychotic, Sana told me.

Based on the 1998 newspaper account written by reporter Patricia Davis, here is what happened.

On April 10, 1997, the then-24-year old female victim drove to a late-afternoon doctor’s appointment in Falls Church, reaching the clinic parking lot at 5:45 p.m. Christopher came up behind her as she was stepping out of her car. He was holding a knife and demanded her car keys, which she immediately gave him. As she stepped free  from the car, he “punched” her hard in the back and demanded her purse, which she gave him. The story continues:

“‘As he struggled to get into my car, I collapsed onto the sidewalk, strewing the papers in my hand all over the ground…I tried to get up, but I couldn’t. The pain in my back and my chest was too intense.’  No one, not even (the victim) realized she had been stabbed until she got to Columbia Arlington Hospital. Meanwhile her boyfriend, an Arlington detective, was paged in the District and came racing to her side. But as he drove on Interstate 66 in his cruiser, the detective spotted his girlfriend’s Mitsubishi whizzing past him, with a stranger behind the wheel. Believing she was being cared for at the hospital, the officer chased the suspect until a radio call told him to get to the hospital right away. ‘The paramedics and emergency rooms staff began to lift me off the stretcher when I heard: ‘Oh my God! This woman has been stabbed!'” Police caught Sharikas later that night, with the bloody knife in the care, when he crashed in Frederick, Md. The victim, whose liver was punctured by the knife, has recovered from most of her physical injuries but is still haunted by what happened… ‘You don’t realize the true impact of crime until you actually live it.'”

Again, this was a terrible attack and crime. Neither Sana nor James Campbell claim it wasn’t.

But in her son’s defense, Sana points out that Christopher was mentally ill. He was seventeen. The court’s guidelines called for a maximum term of eleven years, and since Christopher’s imprisonment, he has been physically beaten in prison, held in solitary confinement, and repeatedly punished for infractions that are clearly linked to his mental illness.

Nineteen years and counting.  

I reached out to Judge Sheridan, now retired, to ask him to further explain the sentence that he gave Christopher Sharikas. I was especially interested because – since 1998- Christopher’s serious mental illness has been repeatedly documented by prison officials and the criminal justice system is now more aware of how mental illnesses can impact a defendant’s thinking. Also, recent rulings issued by the U.S. Supreme Court have called into question harsh sentences (such as life terms) being applied to teens.

For instance, the court declared it was unconstitutional in 2005 to sentence anyone to death for a crime he or she committed while younger than 18. Why?

In concluding the death penalty for minors was cruel and unusual punishment, the court cited a “national consensus” against the practice, along with medical and social-science evidence that teenagers are too immature to be held accountable for their crimes to the same extent as adults.

“From a moral standpoint, it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor’s character deficiencies will be reformed,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the opinion for the court.

Now consider if that teenager also had paranoid schizophrenia.

Was Christopher Sharikas “too immature to be held accountable for (his) crimes to the same extent as adults.”

Sana and James Campbell have spent thousands of dollars in legal fees trying to get Christopher’s double life sentence reduced, but Sana said Judge Sheridan has been adamant in subsequent court hearings about keeping their son locked up for the remainder of his life.

The judge chose not to respond to my letter. At that point, I decided to tip off my former colleagues at The Washington Post about this case. I hope its reporter has better luck getting a reaction from him.

Christopher Sharikas has spent close to 20 years in prison. He has a mental illness.

His mother cries each time she speaks about him.

Is this justice?

About the author:

Pete Earley is the bestselling author of such books as The Hot House and Crazy. When he is not spending time with his family, he tours the globe advocating for mental health reform.

Learn more about Pete.