Sarbaum gets 20 years for voluntary manslaughter

Justin Sarbaum, shown in this May courtroom photo, was sentenced Thursday to to 20 years in prison for shooting and killing Tyson Tew in January 2017. Taylor Carpenter / Post Register file

Two families shed tears in the Bonneville County Courthouse on Thursday morning; one for defendant Justin Sarbaum, and one for Tyson Tew, the man Sarbaum shot and killed Jan. 14, 2017.

Tew’s sister, mother and fiancée read victim impact statements describing what they had been through over the last year.

“It’s hard to put into words the impact this has had on our family,” said Karee Hudock, Tew’s sister. “We are a strong, tight-knit family, but this has left us broken.”

Sarbaum, 37, was charged with voluntary manslaughter for the shooting. The charge was reduced from second-degree murder as part of his plea agreement. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, two years fixed and 18 indeterminate.

Defense Attorney Curtis Smith filed a motion Tuesday to withdraw the guilty plea, but was denied by District Judge Joel Tingey.

Sarbaum shot his friend Tew after an argument turned physical. Sarbaum told the court Thursday that his actions had been in self-defense, that Tew had punched him multiple times and was refusing to leave his apartment. Idaho Falls police doubted his story after the investigation found Tew’s hands did not show damage, and that he had been shot twice in the back.

Smith said the assertion that his client shot the victim from behind was incorrect. Smith said there was also evidence Tew had been shot through the web of his hand, and that Tew responded to the injury by turning, taking the second bullet to the side, and the third to the back.

Bonneville County Chief Deputy Prosecutor John Dewey stood by the Idaho Falls Police Department’s finding, saying Sarbaum’s story was inconsistent with the defendant’s injuries.

“Make no mistake judge, we’re here today because this killing wasn’t justified,” Dewey said.

Smith called George Geczy III, who was a commanding officer over Sarbaum during the Iraq War, as a character witness. Geczy cited two experiences from the war to speak to Sarbaum’s character. In one instance, Sarbaum went out of his way to position a military vehicle so his fire would not hit civilians in an urban area. The second instance was when Sarbaum spoke up in defense of civilians who were being held under the suspicion they were enemy combatants, but whom Sarbaum thought were innocent.

“There were those little things about Justin under my command that let me know where his heart is,” Geczy said.

Smith argued for probation for his client, saying Sarbaum did not pose a threat to the community. Smith read letters from Sarbaum’s friends and family, including one from a prosecutor who served with Sarbaum and called his case “an imperfect self-defense case.”

“At its worse, that’s all this is,” Smith said.

Smith criticized the presentence investigation report that concluded Sarbaum should serve prison time despite noting his lack of a criminal record and his cooperation with Pre-trial Services.

Curtis also criticized reports by media and investigators that are treated as the official story when only Sarbaum knows what happened on Jan. 14.

“If there’s anybody who deserves the benefit of the doubt, it’s this man,” Smith said.

Dewey agreed Sarbaum’s lack of criminal history was a mitigating factor, and likely did not pose a threat as a repeat offender, but also said that, at the end of the day, he’d still shot and killed Tew.

“Being the best citizen in the world for the rest of his life will not bring (Tew) back,” Dewey said.

Sarbaum said he was sorry for what happened, but maintained that it was an act of self defense.

“Had I seen Tyson turning, I would most definitely have stopped firing,” Sarbaum said.

Tingey agreed with Smith that it was unlikely anyone would know for sure what happened, and that rehabilitation and protection of society did not play as important a role as in other cases. He said, however, that the pain caused to Tew’s family was a difficult concept to deal with, and he still needed to consider deterrence and punishment for the crime.

“I’m left with one fact,” Tingey said, “and that is that Tyson Tew is dead and he shouldn’t be.”

Reporter Johnathan Hogan can be reached at 208-542-6746.