Reported by West Deptford Patch Editor Matt Skoufalos
A little more than a month after confessing to the murder of 12-year-old Autumn Pasquale, 16-year-old Clayton resident Justin Robinson was sentenced today to 17 years in the Gloucester County Superior Court in Woodbury.
In upholding the 17-year sentence recommended in the plea agreement, Judge Walter Marshall noted that the sentencing guidelines for first-degree manslaughter can range from 10-30 years, and that “plea agreements are encouraged and should be given deference by the court.
“In the interests of justice, the court will impose the recommended sentence,” he said.
Citing Robinson’s youth and mental condition, Marshall said the teen will begin serving his sentence, shortened by 324 days of jail time credits, in a youth correctional facility.
Robinson must serve 85 percent of the sentence before he is parole-eligible.
Marshall also said that he expects Robinson to begin receiving treatment there for a number of mental health and developmental issues identified in a report by court doctors.
“This was a horrible tragedy for all involved,” the judge said, expressing his sympathies to both families.
“Nothing we do here will bring [Pasquale] back. I know all of that pain never leaves; the loss is tragic."
‘I am living every parent’s worst nightmare’
The depth of emotion on display during the sentencing hearing was at times overwhelming, with moving testimonials from Pasquale’s family, who described the psychological impact of their loss.
“I am living every parent’s worst nightmare,” said Jennifer Cornwell, Pasquale’s mother, her voice faltering through tears.
Cornwell described how the search for Autumn dragged on for days, even as she had been planning her daughter’s 13th birthday party for the subsequent weekend.
She called the 17-year sentence “a generous gift that the defendant does not deserve,” and said she hoped Robinson is haunted by her daughter’s memory for the rest of his life.
“No punishment exists for the defendant that can mend my broken heart,” she said.
Her husband Gregory Cornwell, Pasquale’s stepfather, expressed his hope that Robinson will have a chance for rehabilitation in prison.
Gregory Cornwell’s daughter, Jacqueline Flores, described how the death of her stepsister has made her “very cautious of people all the time,” adding that, even though she lives out of state, “everyone knows the story of the little girl from Clayton who loved to ride her bike.”
Anthony Pasquale, Autumn’s father, described the agony of the days and nights spent searching for his missing daughter, his hands shaking as he read from a prepared statement.
“This could not be happening to me and my family; this could not be happening to Autumn,” he said.
Pasquale added that although “the legal system has limitations,” he said Robinson does not deserve to live.
‘The defendant was my high-school student’
The lengthiest statement of the day was read by Mary Pasquale, who said she’d learned from a television news crawl that her granddaughter’s body had been discovered, and that the girl would not be coming home.
“Only later did we know Autumn was found 17 houses from our home and the defendant was my high-school student,” she said.
Mary Pasquale said the loss hospitalized another of her grandchildren with anxiety; that she and other family members are in therapy and on medication as a result.
She described having nightmares of Autumn’s "violent murder," and said that the sight of the blue recycling bins on her street triggers thoughts of "how easily" her granddaughter’s body was discarded “like a piece of trash.”
Mary Pasquale even claimed that the incident has cost her her livelihood.
“I could never teach again, my lifelong passion,” she said, adding that she “would be forever suspicious” of her students and could no longer “form the rapport” with other children that is needed to be a teacher.
‘He is filled with remorse’
In a statement made on behalf of her son, Robinson’s mother, Anita Saunders, said that her son was a special education student who was born with a physical deformity and “was not given the type and amount of help he needed.
“We are saddened for her family as well as our son,” Saunders said. “He is filled with remorse.”
Public Defender Janine Faulkner said Robinson’s psychological report indicated a low IQ, intellectual disability, ADHD, generalized anxiety, and somatic symptom disorder.
Faulkner said that Robinson grew up in a home with a “significant history of domestic violence,” that he suffered physical abuse from his father, and that he witnessed his father strangle his mother on several occasions.
“This was learned behavior,” she said.
Faulkner also said that the case “came close to [ruling on] our client having a diminished capacity,” but that because of the plea agreement, that issue was never litigated.
On his own behalf, Robinson offered a brief statement.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I never meant for this to happen. This was all a big mistake.”
Robinson’s older brother, Donte, who was also charged in the crime, has a hearing at the Woodbury Superior Court slated for 11 a.m. on September 18.