Published Friday, June 14, 2013 | 4:33 p.m.
Updated Friday, June 14, 2013 | 6:46 p.m.
SALT LAKE CITY — Fighting back tears, the sister of a teenager whose single punch led to the death of a Utah soccer referee apologized Friday to the man's family for the first time.
"We want to tell the Portillo family how sorry we are and how horrible we all feel about what has happened here," the young woman said while reading a prepared statement. "We cannot imagine how much you must miss your father and we hope you can find peace."
The apology came in the atrium of a Salt Lake City courthouse shortly after her 17-year-old brother pleaded not guilty to the charges of homicide by assault during an arraignment. During the hearing, he was informed by a juvenile court judge that his request to go home while the case plays out in court had been denied.
Police say the teenager, whose name The Associated Press is withholding because he's a minor, punched 46-year-old Ricardo Portillo once in the head on April 27 after Portillo called a foul on him in a soccer game. Portillo died after a weeklong coma.
The teenager's attorney, Monte Sleight, told Juvenile Court Judge Kimberly Hornak that the boy is a good kid who excelled in school — taking AP courses — and planned to go to college.
In making a case that his client should be allowed to go home to his family, Sleight scoffed at the notion his client was a flight risk or a threat to the community. He said the boy comes from a hard-working, stable family who has lived in Utah for 20 years. He pointed out that the boy turned himself into police following the incident.
"This is a junior in high school," Sleight said after the hearing. "Think what you were like when you were a junior in high school, and then imagine then making one horrible decision and being judged based on that for the rest of your life."
But prosecutors painted a different picture of the teenager, saying he's a threat to the community if released and that he and his family could possibly flee. Patricia Cassell, a Salt Lake County deputy district attorney, pointed out that he and his father left the soccer field after the incident despite being told to stay — before they even knew Portillo was in critical condition. Now that he's facing possible prison time, the boy and his family are definitely a flight risk, Cassell said.
In response to a comment from Sleight that it was "silly" to call the boy violent and a risk to flee, Cassell shot back. "It is not silly what he did. He took a father from this family."
In explaining her decision, Hornak said she's impressed by the boy's academic record, lack of violent history and strong family dynamic. But the seriousness of the crime and the consequences he's facing carried more weight in her decision, she said.
Family members of both the deceased and the suspect sat on opposite sides of the courtroom in what was the first court hearing since the teenager was charged last month with homicide by assault.
The boy sat with handcuffs on, flanked by his attorneys while wearing an orange shirt and sporting long, black hair. A large, colorful painting with rainbows, castles, birds and children playing hung on the wall behind him — a stark reminder the hearing was in juvenile court.
The suspect's mother sat in the front row as she carefully listened to a Spanish-speaking translator who whispered into her ear what was being said. She held back tears when the judge ruled he would not be going home.
On the other side of the court sat Portillo's daughters and other family members and friends. They said afterward they were pleased the teenager would remain in custody. His oldest daughter, Johana Portillo, 26, said it was hard to see the accused teenager in court — especially with Father's Day being Sunday.
"It was a lot of mixed emotions: I couldn't believe I met the person who took my dad's life," she said. "But I will just leave everything in God's hands. There is no way for me to judge him. I forgive him for what he did to my dad because that's what my dad taught me to be: a forgiving person."
Prosecutors want to try him as an adult, while Sleight wants the case to stay in juvenile court. Judge Hornak scheduled a hearing for Aug. 5-6 to address that issue.
Hornak ruled Friday that part, but not all, of that hearing will be open to the public. The first segment to determine if there is enough evidence to move forward with the charges will be open. But the second part of that hearing, in which they discuss the teenager's social, psychological and family history, will be closed to protect his privacy, she said.
A coalition of Salt Lake City media organizations asked the judge to keep the proceedings open, and its attorneys made its arguments Friday. Sleight vigorously argued to keep the proceedings closed, saying it's necessary to preserve the secrecy in order to create a comfortable environment for juveniles.
The boy's sister called her brother a kind and loving young man and asked for mercy from the court.
"We hope those in power will see the same lovable kid we see," she said.