LARGO — For the first time, one of the men responsible for murdering an 8-year-old girl in St. Petersburg stood before her relatives and publicly apologized.
"I just want to say I'm sorry for you and your family. I'm sorry for my family for what happened. And I just ask for forgiveness," Mario Lewis Walls said in court on Friday.
Walls, 21, who cooperated with authorities, was sentenced by Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Nancy Moate Ley to 15 years in prison for his role in the shooting that killed Paris Whitehead-Hamilton in April 2009.
Two of Paris' relatives stood in court at the sentencing hearing Friday and said they did forgive Walls. They also thanked him for testifying in the recent trial of three accomplices, who were convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
"Now I can move on with my life, my family can move on with their lives. We don't have to live with that burden anymore. So thank you very much, and I forgive you. God bless," said Shenita Williams, Paris' aunt, who was raising the girl.
Paris' cousin, LaShawn Crawford, said "without you, we wouldn't have the closure that we've needed," and added that the murder "not only affected my family, it affected the whole community."
Crawford told Walls that "to break the no-snitch code, that took a lot of guts, and I thank you from the bottom of my heart."
Walls was one of four men in a car who drove to a house on Preston Avenue in 2009, looking for a rival gang member nicknamed "Monster" who was inside. The others were Dondre Davis, Stephen Cortez Harper, and Duong Dai Nguyen.
Walls testified last month that the men were angry at Monster because they believed he had shot in their direction earlier in the night. Monster was a member of a gang called 8-Hype, and the others were in the rival Bethel Heights Boys.
The house they drove to on Preston Avenue is owned by Williams, who was raising Paris there. Monster did not live there but sometimes visited and was inside at the time. The four men stopped the car by the house and didn't see Monster, but drove around the block and came back. Then, Davis and Nguyen got out of the car.
Nguyen "was by the hood of the car shooting over the car and Dondre Davis was by the trunk," Walls said at their trial.
They shot with assault rifles, pumping 56 rounds into the house, with nine people inside.
The 15-year-sentence was part of a plea arrangement between prosecutors and defense attorneys. Walls testified without knowing what his sentence would be. Walls, who was the driver and not one of the shooters, had previously pleaded guilty to second-degree murder.
Assistant State Attorney Richard Ripplinger commended Walls for providing "devastating" testimony against the other three defendants, "at risk to himself." Ripplinger said Walls' grand jury testimony also was key in securing an indictment against Nguyen.
In sentencing Walls, Ley also made a note to prison authorities asking not to house him in the same facility as the men he helped convict. The request is not binding.
Curtis Krueger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8232.