SPRINGFIELD, Va. — A Fairfax County judge sentenced a young man, who was convicted in the shooting deaths of two of his high school classmates, to 20 years in prison Thursday.
Zachary Burkard, who committed the deadly shooting in Fairfax County, Virginia in 2021 when he was 18, was sentenced to two decades in prison and three years of post-release supervision after being convicted on charges of voluntary manslaughter.
Burkard shot and killed 16-year-old Calvin Van Pelt and 17-year-old Ersheen Elaiaiser using a ghost gun after a social media beef between crews turned violent in April 2021.
"Twenty years?" said Mike Winfield, Calvin's father. "Basically my son's life was worth ten years. He shot my son in the back, my son was unarmed, and he never laid a hand on that kid. I guess we got some type of justice."
Burkard claimed he shot out of self defense because the victims and other friends, who were students at South County High School, were beating his friend so badly inside a garage. Prosecutors argued he had every intention of using the gun, which was capable of firing fully automatic.
Jurors were presented with a video from the first police officer to arrive immediately after the shooting on April 25, 2021. They heard audio of the gunshots and have seen the vile threats, including the n-word, made by Burkard in a Snapchat video the day before the shootings, while he was waving a gun outside a house he thought was the home of one of the teens.
The Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Office charged Burkard with murder, but a jury found the shootings only reached the standard of manslaughter. The jury recommended the maximum sentence of 20 years.
"The court can't find sufficient cause to deviate from the jury," Judge David Bernhard said during the sentencing. "The court finds the verdict is not unfair."
The family of Elaiaser said they did not agree with the amended charge to voluntary manslaughter.
"I'm glad they didn't reduce the sentencing from what it was," said Nidal Elaiaiser, Ersheen's sister. "It's better than what it could've been. We all love him and wish he was here right now. It's lonely in the house without him."
The defense requested the judge grant Burkard up to an eight-year prison sentence instead with the help of supervision from the community, arguing he faced multiple traumas throughout his life. Attorney Bryan Kennedy said 20 years was too much.
"Prison doesn't help anyone," Kennedy said to the judge. "He needs the help but you don't get that help in prison."
Fairfax County Commonwealth's Attorney Steve Descano, who has been vocal about prison reform, said serious crimes must still have proper accountability.
"I think it was appropriate," Descano said. "The way I approach is to do a lot of balancing, and I think that balancing came out the right way in this case."
Prior to the sentencing, other family members of the victims answered how their deaths impacted their lives.
"I'm still struggling," said Vanessa Winfield, Calvin's mother added. "It's tough getting up in the morning. My kids don't even want to go to school anymore."
The sentencing hearing began with a tense exchange between the defense and the judge.
The defense filed a motion for Judge Bernhard to recuse himself because he appeared to show a pre-judgement during a bench hearing in December when he made this statement:
"I know your client [Burkard] is not a defense attorney but even a sentence of 20 years is a pretty good result considering what he was facing in the beginning."
The defense misquoted the judge in his motion citing the inability to get a copy of the audio recording.
"That sentence would show to a reasonable person that there's an appearance the fact the court is considering that a 20-year sentence is a good result," Kennedy said.
Bernard said he made the statement so Burkard could see the positives in life. He also said this because Burkard reportedly tried to die by suicide following the jury verdict.
The judge denied the motion. The defense also tried to withdraw himself as counsel, but Burkard wanted him to stay.