TAMPA — The judge called Tuesday's sentencing of Khayri McCray for attempted murder one of the toughest decisions she has faced in 25 years on the bench.
Hillsborough Circuit Judge Debra Behnke had two sentencing choices: Twenty years in prison or six years. One seemed too much, she said, the other too little. McCray's mother and former teachers and coaches waited in agony for her decision. He shivered in his jail jumpsuit.
Behnke said she wasn't even sure what happened on May 22, 2010, when a gang of youths crashed a high school graduation party in Riverview, leading to a brawl and gunshots that left one dead and two wounded.
McCray, then 18, was with the gang. But he said he never expected trouble and wasn't one of the boys carrying guns. He was a track and football athlete. He was days away from graduating and heading for Florida A&M University.
"I was just an average teenager in the wrong place at the wrong time," he told the judge.
Behnke agreed that the chaos of that night, reflected in conflicting witness' testimony of gunshots from different directions, "stymied me in many ways. In 25 years, you don't often see this scenario."
One victim, Devante Dallas, 18, was shot dead. Ballistics tests ruled out McCray as the shooter of Dallas. At least two other suspects were named during McCray's weeklong trial, though no one else was ever arrested.
McCray was convicted of firing a .32-caliber pistol at least three times into the crowd. The shots wounded De Ron Richardson, 21, and Jeffrey Thomas Sr., the father of a graduating Durant High School senior. He had rented the Winthrop Barn Theater for his son's party.
Thomas still carries a bullet lodged against his spine, 2 millimeters from his spinal cord. He told the judge that during his military career, "The only bullets thrown my way were in combat zones.
"I didn't dream my son's graduation milestone would be marked by his dad having a bullet in his back the rest of his life,'' Thomas said. "When these people came with guns and recklessly fired into a crowd, it affected everyone. The bullets had anyone's name on them."
McCray told the judge they weren't his bullets. "I will always plead my innocence." He said he refused a negotiated plea because "I was accused of something I honestly didn't do."
He was going to college on scholarship, he said. "Who in their right mind would waste all this opportunity?"
McCray's two convictions for attempted second-degree murder with a firearm carry minimum mandatory sentences of 20 years under the law.
Behnke's only other option was to sentence McCray as a "youthful offender." That option carries a maximum sentence of six years.
Neither the 20 years nor the six years seemed right, Behnke said. But she said she felt bound by the decision of the jury.
"There was chaos that night, but I have to accept what the jurors found — that he fired recklessly and carelessly into a crowd.
"I hate sending young people to prison," she said, "but a youthful offender sentence is not appropriate. I'm going to sentence him to the 20-year minimum mandatory."
McCray's family gasped. McCray tried to stand. "Judge, may I say something?" he cried out.
Behnke let him speak again. He begged her to suspend the sentence. During the trial, "There was no physical evidence," he said. "There were so many different stories."
"I was there," the judge said. "Quite frankly, I don't know what happened. But the jury chose to believe witnesses."
McCray was led from the courtroom in shackles, still pleading.
John Barry can be reached at (813) 226-3383 or firstname.lastname@example.org.