BROOKSVILLE — Given his first chance to speak in court Thursday, Christian Rivera twisted around in his chair and made a last-minute plea to one of the men he was convicted of pistol-whipping more than a year and a half ago.
Rivera apologized to Domenic Musicaro and his family. He blamed the assault on drugs and peer pressure. He told the judge he wanted a chance to be a father to his 3-year-old son.
"I'm not a savage," said Rivera, now 21. "I don't want to get out of prison when I'm 40 or 50 years old. That's all I ask."
No such luck. In fact, Rivera will likely be much older than that if he ever gets out of prison.
Rivera was sentenced to a total of 40 years stemming from the January 2009 pistol-whipping of Musicaro at Amity Trails Park in Spring Hill. A jury found Rivera guilty last month of aggravated assault with a firearm, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and attempted robbery with a firearm.
"I know to the defendant's family this was too harsh," Circuit Judge Stephen Rushing said. "And to the family of victims, it's probably too lenient. But it's the best I could do today."
Under state sentencing guidelines, Rivera could have received a life sentence.
"It's a harsh sentence but it's a harsh crime," Assistant State Attorney Rob Lewis said later.
Rivera was also sentenced to five years in prison after pleading guilty to a separate charge of aggravated battery with great bodily harm following a brawl last year in the Hernando County Jail.
Fellow inmate Raymond Dawson suffered a broken nose and cheekbone in the fight.
But the charges that will send him to prison for a long time stem from a brutal confrontation at the usually tranquil county park on the evening of Jan. 21, 2009.
According to court documents, Musicaro, 17, and Kevin Strickland, 31, had wrapped up four hours of a fantasy role-playing combat game involving foam weapons when they were hit with a shower of paintballs.
Strickland said he yelled obscenities in the direction of the paintballs, but took no further action. The two headed toward Strickland's truck and began packing up to leave.
Rivera jumped out of an SUV and approached the victims, brandishing a gun in Musicaro's face. Musicaro said he looked at Rivera and said, "Why can't we handle this maturely?"
Rivera struck him three times in the face with the gun. Musicaro went blind in his right eye, and another blow shattered part of Strickland's skull and destroyed his peripheral vision.
During last month's trial, the jury took three hours to reach a guilty verdict.
Moments before Thursday's hearing, Rivera sat handcuffed at a table and cracked jokes with some of his family members as he tried to keep his mother and sister from tearing up.
Things turned more serious when a bailiff explained to Rivera and his family members that there was to be no contact following the judge's ruling.
"I can't give you guys a hug," he told them.
Following the sentence, Musicaro's mother said the trial had taken a toll on all three families involved in the case. "It'll never be over," Toni Musicaro said.
Public defender Mike Amico said he planned to appeal the sentence, claiming that Rushing improperly sentenced Rivera because of an error in the interpretation of a statute on crimes involving firearms.
But "we expected a very lengthy sentence," Amico said. "It's just sad and it's a statement to those out there about not using drugs and staying away from guns."
Joel Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 754-6120.