Synagogue vandal gets probation after apology, acts of contrition

Sebastian Espinoza-Carranza leaves the court after being sentenced to three years on probation for vandalizing a Gaithersburg synagogue. Photo by Suzanne Pollak
Sebastian Espinoza-Carranza leaves the court after being sentenced to three years on probation for vandalizing a Gaithersburg synagogue.
Photo by Suzanne Pollak

The Gaithersburg teenager who spray-painted swastikas on Shaare Torah Congregation was sentenced Tuesday to three years on probation and ordered to perform 80 hours of community service.

Sebastian Espinoza-Carranza, 18, could have been sentenced to nine years in prison for his part in the April incident. The high school senior received a reduced sentence because he met with Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal of Shaare Torah, toured the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and wrote a two-page paper about when he had learned.

“I believe people need to be accountable for what they did,” Montgomery County Circuit Court Judge Nelson Rupp Jr. told the young man. “What you did back on April 7 is despicable.”

“This was an absolutely horrific crime,” said Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Sherri Koch. “The community itself is still healing.” She said it was “very much to the synagogue’s credit” that its leadership preferred that Espinoza-Carranza be educated rather than punished.

Blumenthal addressed the court, explaining that he and synagogue president Connie Liss spoke with Espinoza-Carranza about teshuvah — repentance — and the importance of overcoming one’s mistakes. The young man “quite willingly” apologized and promised he would never do it again, the rabbi said.

He also helped repaint the damage he had done to the synagogue, Blumenthal pointed out.

It’s important for someone “to learn from [his or her mistake] and grow from it, and if that can happen, we’re all the better for it,” Liss said.

Espinoza-Carranza read his essay during the 30-minute sentencing hearing, saying that at various times during his guided visit to the Holocaust museum, he was shocked and disgusted. He told the court he now understands the significance of the swastika and that what he learned “will stay with me for a lifetime.”

When asked by Rupp why he painted swastikas on the synagogue, Espinoza-Carranza replied, “We thought we were going to be cool. We wanted to be bad-ass.” The teenager was referring to three friends who also vandalized the synagogue.

Because the others were under the age of 18, their fate was decided in the juvenile justice system; their names and punishments were not made public.

Espinoza-Carranza’s attorney, Barry Helfand, requested that his client neither be sent to prison nor receive probation so that he could “get on with his life.”

But Koch argued that the crime occurred merely six months ago, and that Espinoza-Carranza is only beginning to understand the damage he caused. He harmed the synagogue, the Jewish community and the community at large, she said.

“It’s a long road. He needs to really understand,” she said, adding that if he didn’t receive any punishment from the court, it would be like telling the world that “all you have to do is apologize, and it will go away.”

Immediately following the sentencing, Blumenthal said he was “satisfied. Our biggest concern now is for the defendant to move on with his life,” finish high school, attend college and continue his music.

Said the rabbi, “The probation will help him stay on track.”

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