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Quadriplegic shooting victim to Tampa court: 'I got a life sentence. They deserve the same.'

TAMPA — The bullet tore through his neck and severed his spinal cord. He sometimes wishes it had finished the job.

Confined to a hospital bed 300 miles away from his family, Christopher Clabeaux feels nothing below his chest.

He lost it all at 18.

On Friday, two men were sentenced in the 2008 home invasion and robbery that left him a quadriplegic. Clabeaux wanted to speak to the judge, but traveling to Tampa would have meant the fatal possibility he could choke during transport.

Instead, his voice came into the courtroom via speaker phone.

"I don't know where to begin," he said.

He knew all three suspects:

Benjamin Bryant, a childhood friend.

Ronald E. Godwin, who at 19 had spent two years and five months in prison on burglary and theft convictions and had an AK-47 tattooed on his arm.

And Johvan Paul, who had a juvenile burglary adjudication, one for criminal mischief and three for marijuana possession.

Clabeaux's life wasn't on track, either. He'd dropped out of Alonso High School and gotten his GED, but spent much of his time watching television and smoking marijuana.

He wanted to be friends with everyone, his mother said. He would have given anything they asked for.

The men didn't ask.

Early in the morning of Aug. 30, 2008, the robbers grabbed Clabeaux's girlfriend by the hair outside his Citrus Park apartment and made her ring the doorbell.

Clabeaux, who had two other friends over, testified he was in the bedroom when he heard a commotion. He saw three men, faces covered, coming at him with a gun.

He tried to close the door, but Godwin pushed from the other side. Clabeaux recognized him, and shouted his nickname: "Pooh!"

Godwin fired the gun. Clabeaux fell like dead weight.

"Get the weed!" the gunman called to Paul.

They took marijuana and cash and stepped over Clabeaux's body on the way out. Clabeaux would never stand again.

His insurance terms put him in a rehabilitation center in Miami. It's where his family celebrates Thanksgiving and Christmas. Where he looks down at his body and wonders what's next.

Clabeaux, now 20, plans to take college courses. To become a psychologist. To one day motivate young people with his story.

These days, motivating himself is hard enough.

He feels nothing below his nipples and when he tries to use his hands, they just flop around. He suffers aneurysms and pneumonia and urinary tract infections. He can't do anything on his own. He feels like all he has is his head.

To testify at Godwin and Paul's trial in March, he was transported to the State Attorney's Office in Miami and beamed into the courtroom by television.

His testimony was interrupted more than once when his legs began to spasm. Defense attorneys turned the television away from the jury, so they wouldn't see the victim in agony.

In the end, Paul and Godwin were convicted of kidnapping with great bodily harm and home invasion robbery. Godwin was also convicted of an aggravated battery for firing the gun.

As part of a plea deal, Bryant testified in the trial. He will be sentenced on May 13.

But on Friday, the others faced more. For that reason, Clabeaux wanted to make sure the judge knew how he felt.

"I'm trying to get better, and nothing's working," he said. "I can't use my hands. I can't use my feet. I'm depressed …

"I got a life sentence," he said. "They deserve the same."

Circuit Judge William Fuente agreed.

Godwin, 21, will spend the rest of his life in prison. Paul, 20, will spend the next 40 years there, then be released on a suspended life sentence — meaning that if he gets caught breaking the law once, he will return to prison.

Clabeaux listened to it all.

He told the judge, "Thank you so much."

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Quadriplegic shooting victim to Tampa court: 'I got a life sentence. They deserve the same.' 05/01/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 12:18am]
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