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15 years for pedestrian rundown

Michael Wayne Washginton, Jr. during his sentencing hearing.Michael Wayne Washington Jr. of Macclenny was sentenced last week to 15 years in prison for running over and killing a handicapped pedestrian during a confrontation with another young man on April 11, 2011.

Circuit Judge Phyllis Rosier accepted Mr. Washington’s guilty pleas October 31 to manslaughter, leaving the scene of an accident involving death, aggravated assault with intent to commit a felony and violation of probation.

The first two counts related to the death of Rashard Belford, 18, who lived in the same southwest city neighborhood as the 21-year-old defendant.

The aggravated assault count was connected to Mr. Washington’s altercation with Kevohntae Hadley, then 18, which drew an estimated 50 people to the melee at the corner of MLK Boulevard and Minnesota Avenue about 8 pm.

Witnesses told police Mr. Washington got into his mother’s 2001 Chevrolet sedan parked near the intersection and aimed it at Mr. Hadley, who had intervened in a fight among their younger sisters, reportedly over a boy.

The victim, who had cerebral palsy, was struck by the sedan and dragged underneath as Mr. Washington pursued Mr. Hadley. Mr. Belford’s family said at the sentencing hearing the defendant did not heed pleas to stop the vehicle.

Mr. Belford’s adoptive mother, Eddie Mae Lee, read a letter she wrote back in September expressing her disbelief that Mr. Washington was sorry for killing Mr. Belford. She argued he did not deserve the court’s mercy.

The victim’s family sought a stiffer sentence than the 15 years recommended by prosecutor Ralph Yazdiya.

“Who will have mercy on Rashard Belford,” said Ms. Lee. “ … Money is not important. I just want justice … It’s about justice.”

Assistant State Attorney Yazdiya explained at the start of the roughly hour-long hearing before Judge Rosier why he sought the 15-year term.

He said the evidence, including witness testimony, showed Mr. Washington was attempting to threaten or injure Mr. Hadley, and Mr. Belford was killed accidently during the chaos that ensued.

“He [Mr. Washington] never intended to run over Mr. Belford,” Mr. Yazdiya told the judge, adding that the lack of deadly intent warranted a charge of manslaughter, not murder.

To remain consistent with his previous sentencing recommendations, specifically in past DUI manslaughter cases, Mr. Yazdiya said he sought the 15-year sentence, followed by five years probation upon release.

Mr. Washington received 569 days credit for time served since his arrest in the spring of 2011.

Mr. Washington’s public defender, Julie Johnson, said despite differing witness accounts regarding what part of the vehicle struck Mr. Belford  and other details of the confrontation that led to his death, “it’s absolutely clear that Mr. Washington did not intend to hit Mr. Belford. It’s also unclear whether Mr. Washington knew he’d hit Mr. Belford.”

A number of the defendant’s relatives, some in tears by the end of the hearing, joined others in speaking on Mr. Washington’s behalf. They said he helped around the house with his three sisters and assisted his grandmother.

“He did for her like no other and she really appreciated it,” said one woman representing Mr. Washington’s mother.

“Michael has been remorseful,” said the defendant’s aunt. “The Michael I know would never knowingly hurt anyone.”

A pastor who’s been counseling Mr. Washington in jail said he’s witnessed the young man’s remorse  personally. “That’s why he’s willing to take whatever you give him,” the man said.

Before passing the sentence, Judge Rosier explained that the case had weighed heavily on her thoughts since the tragedy occurred.

She said Mr. Washington’s $1 million bond, which kept him in jail throughout the case, was ordered due to the uncertainty about whether the state would pursue a charge of second-degree murder or manslaughter.

The judge said a lot of time and effort has gone to “keeping the peace” in the west Macclenny neighborhood where Mr. Belford died. She recalled commenting before his death that if the feuding between families there didn’t stop, somebody would be killed.

Judge Rosier also chastised adults in the neighborhood for allowing a “mob” to gather at the scene, which hindered the investigation.

“The more people you get involved in a crime scene, the more versions (of events) you’ll have,” she said, adding that under the circumstances a plea deal to manslaughter seemed more appropriate than one to murder.

“Michael,” the judge said, “I hope you learned from this. I don’t see how you can help but learn from this. It appears this happened out of pure anger. I recommend getting help for that and not being around people that will agitate that.”

Mr. Washington also pleaded guilty to violation of probation for a resisting arrest without violence case in 2010. He was sentenced to 364 days and given credit for the same period in time served.

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