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Driver gets 7 years in hit-run death of USF cancer researcher

Shawn Lee Burton was sentenced Friday for leaving the scene of a fatal accident in 2010.
Shawn Lee Burton was sentenced Friday for leaving the scene of a fatal accident in 2010.
Published Oct. 20, 2012

TAMPA — The grieving father of Kayoko Ishizuka was unable to come from Japan for the Friday sentencing of the driver who left his daughter dead on the roadside after veering into her bicycle in 2010.

Ishizuka's family of fellow scientists at the University of South Florida, where she was a cancer researcher, came instead. But before the sentencing, they got an education in the complexities of criminal law and the ambiguities of justice.

Shawn Lee Burton, 31, had waived a jury trial and asked Hillsborough Circuit Judge Scott Stephens to sentence him on a charge of leaving the scene of a fatal accident. He admitted to veering into the back of Ishizuka's bicycle on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard near University Square Drive. It was about 2 a.m. on Sept. 25, 2010.

After hitting her, Burton drove away. He turned himself in hours later.

In court Friday, Burton was represented by a former assistant state attorney who had prosecuted Jennifer Porter, the 29-year-old Tampa dance teacher who drove away after hitting four children, killing two of them, in 2004. Kim Seace, the ex-prosecutor, reminded Judge Stephens that Porter got probation.

Seace sought similar leniency for Burton. Assistant State Attorney Barbara Coleman asked for a 15-year sentence. The disagreement evolved into an all-day battle over what he deserved.

Coleman showed that Burton had a DUI arrest in Sacramento in 2006. She argued he'd been drinking before he struck Ishizuka, 30, and suggested that by fleeing the scene and waiting hours to turn himself in he avoided a charge of DUI manslaughter.

Seace pointed to autopsy findings that showed Ishizuka was killed on impact and Burton couldn't have helped her. She tried unsuccessfully to keep his DUI arrest out of the record. She insisted he didn't realize he'd hit anyone, even though Ishizuka was thrown over the hood.

Burton testified himself, never admitting he knew he had hit a cyclist, but tearfully admitting, "What I did was wrong."

As arguments dragged on through the morning and into the afternoon, her USF colleagues waited to tell another story.

Ishizuka's USF mentor, Dr. Robert Deschenes, chairman of molecular medicine, described the sacrifices she had made for cancer research. She was working on experiments late that night, he said, just as she routinely stayed late. "That's the way she worked." Researchers like her, he said, defer any hope of raising families.

One of the few passions available to her was cycling. She grew up on bicycles in Japan. Deschenes said she cycled through Wisconsin winters while earning her doctorate. She stubbornly kept cycling in Tampa — a city with one of the worst bicycle safety records in the country — plastering her helmet and bike with reflectors and lights.

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At the end, Judge Stephens noted that Burton was charged with leaving the scene of a fatal accident, but "not with causing the death of the lady herself."

But he said he was convinced Burton knew he'd hit Ishizuka and fled without knowing if she was dead or alive.

Stephens gave Burton a sentence of seven years and three months. Burton has already served two years in jail. The judge also sentenced Burton to two years of community control and three years of probation. During that time, he won't be allowed to drive.


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