BROOKSVILLE — When Douglas Hughes squeezed the trigger of a stolen .38-caliber pistol, the bullet that ripped through Tommy Kidder's skull should have killed him.
It severed his optic nerve, fractured bones in his face and shredded his sinus cavity. The round stopped the width of a sand grain from his carotid artery — and sure death.
On Wednesday, Tommy's mother, Susan Kidder, watched from the courtroom gallery as Hughes, 19, accepted a deal that would send him to prison for 80 months, with a minimum stay of three years. He pleaded guilty to grand theft, possession of a weapon by a felon and attempted felony murder.
Suffering from crushing headaches and near blindness in his right eye since the July shooting, Tommy Kidder wasn't at the Hernando County Courthouse. The 19-year-old didn't care to be there.
"He's just so relieved it's over," Mrs. Kidder said. "Tommy can now move forward."
Mrs. Kidder wouldn't say if the family had forgiven the man who shot her son. They just wanted the saga to end.
Hughes had previously rejected a deal that would have sent him to prison for 10 years, so the Kidders met with prosecutors earlier this week and agreed to the shorter term.
Hughes' mother, Kirsten Hughes, didn't know of the plea until she talked to a reporter Wednesday afternoon. Mrs. Hughes said she was surprised because when she last spoke to her son on Tuesday night, he didn't intend to accept the deal. She declined to comment further until she could speak with him again.
The resolution comes less than two weeks before what would have been the start of a complex trial at which prosecutors planned to present a rare legal argument to jurors.
On the afternoon of July 31, Hughes and another teen, Troy Zorn, played video games in a bedroom at Hughes' house, authorities said. Kidder, who knew Zorn from riding the school bus with him, sat in a chair and sipped a glass of water as he watched the two play on an Xbox.
Zorn mentioned that Hughes had stolen a gun, a report said. Hughes stopped playing and walked to a desk near Kidder's chair.
He turned around, pointed a gun at Kidder and said, "Freeze, mother------!"
Then, a single shot rang out.
Determining charges from that incident alone would have been a challenge for prosecutors, but the circumstances were even more complicated.
In 2009, Hughes was convicted of burglary. That meant he had committed a felony just by having the pistol.
A few weeks after Kidder was shot, Hughes was charged with another burglary — the revolver, authorities said, had been stolen from an unlocked Jeep parked in front of a house about a block away. The Jeep belonged to a Pasco sheriff's deputy; the gun was his personal weapon.
Assistant State Attorney Don Barbee reviewed the case and, in October, decided to charge Hughes with attempted murder.
After Wednesday's hearing, Barbee said he was satisfied with the deal because the victim's family supported it and because it spared Kidder from having to testify.
It also ensured Hughes would spend time in prison.
"It was a unique set of circumstances that led to the charge, and it would have been somewhat of a novel legal theory we were going forward with to trial," Barbee said. "There's always the chance of losing."
Given that the deal was less than the state's original offer, Hughes' public defender, Devon Sharkey, said he thought it was best for his client to plead.
"I would rather see him get a lighter sentence," he said, "but I can understand why the state did what they did."
The Kidders' medical bills for Tommy's wound are mounting, but they declined direct restitution from Hughes because they didn't want to have contact with him. Hughes was ordered to pay restitution to the state's victims compensation fund, which to date has reimbursed the Kidders about $6,300 for medical expenses.
Now, Mrs. Kidder just hopes Hughes will learn from what happened. "Doug needs to understand that only by a miracle Tommy survived, so the punishment could have been much worse," she said. "I am hoping this sentence will help him understand that there are serious consequences for his actions and that Tommy will also be paying a price, for much more than six years."
Tommy Kidder's recovery has astounded family, friends and teachers at Nature Coast Technical High School, but he will have lingering physical effects for the rest of his life. He kept up with schoolwork through the district's Hospital Homebound program and returned to school in January. He is now on track to graduate in June with the rest of his senior class.
On the same day the Kidders met with prosecutors this week to discuss a deal with Hughes, they learned that Tommy — whom friends call "Miracle Boy" — had been named Nature Coast's Turnaround Student of the Year. The award is given to one student at each school to recognize a brave comeback in the face of adversity.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or [email protected]