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'Nobody wins' as sentence is in middle

A paralegal convicted of manslaughter with a weapon asked for mercy. The family of the man he killed asked for 30 years in prison, the maximum penalty.

Circuit Judge Daniel Sleet said each side would leave court Tuesday unsatisfied.

"Nobody wins in this case," Sleet said. "Both sides are going to be upset, but that's the way it goes."

Then he sentenced James Behanna to 15 years in prison, followed by five years' probation. Right down the middle, mediating two sides of a courtroom sniffling into tissues and fighting for their version of justice.

Behanna confronted 21-year-old Robert Mears Jr. on Dec. 7 after he refused to leave Behanna's wife's law office property on N Florida Avenue.

Behanna, 37, worked there as a paralegal. He tussled with Mears and then followed him off the property, believing he had unlawfully trespassed and needed to wait for police. At his trial in October, Behanna said he stabbed Mears after the younger man choked him.

Jurors rejected a "stand your ground" jury instruction, whereby Behanna's use of force would have been justified because he felt threatened in a place he had a right to be.

Behanna's supporters, who sent about 50 letters to the judge, said the incident was out of character for the man they called a friend, husband, father and son.

"A day does not go by that we're not horrified by what happened," said Aida Rodriguez, Behanna's lawyer wife, who is pregnant with their son.

But Mears' family and friends, who flew from his home state of Pennsylvania for the sentencing, said Mears tried to defuse the situation by walking away.

Robert Mears Sr., the victim's father, sounded proud as he recalled how his welder son moved to Tampa to make a life for himself. He choked up as he remembered the day one year ago when he learned of his son's death.

"I have a big empty space in my heart, and it's going to haunt me for the rest of my life," he said.

"As far as leniency is concerned..." He paused, removed his glasses and stared at Behanna.

"Where's leniency for my son?"

Two weeks ago, on Mears' 22nd birthday, "we could only go to his grave," cried his mother, Cheryl Baggot. "Not a place a 22-year-old should be."

After eight people spoke on Mears' behalf, a voice piped up from the audience.

"Can I say something?"

It was Behanna's father. He couldn't stand hearing one more mean thing about his son, a boy who had grown into a man with a respect for guns and knives instilled in him by his country father, he said.

"James knows that a knife and a gun are the last resort," John A. Behanna said. "He would never have resorted to a knife if his life wasn't in danger."

By the time Sleet announced the sentence, the two sides' emotions seemed spent. Behanna stood resolute, his expression unchanging.

Without missing a beat, his attorney rose to lay the foundation for an appeal.

Colleen Jenkins can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or cjenkins@sptimes.com.

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