The beating death of James Gifford outside a 7-Eleven sparked community outrage. Now the man accused in the killing faces upgraded charges. Sarah Blazonis tells us why murder isn't one of them.
SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Surveillance video told part of the story of what happened to James Gifford, 70, outside 7-Eleven on Valley Drive in Syracuse in September. Investigators said it showed Romeo Williams, 18, celebrating inside the store after allegedly striking Gifford in the head, knocking him unconscious. They say Williams then went back outside and continued kicking and beating Gifford, stopping only when his friends pulled him away, but one big question remained.
"The issue in this case has long been cause of death. What did Mr. Gifford actually die of? Preliminary results from the autopsy led me to believe that it was possible that Mr. Gifford died of a heart attack," said Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick says that a medical examiner's report now shows that's not the case. A microscopic examination of Gifford's brain revealed injuries consistent with either a blow or Gifford's head hitting the ground that led to his death. That report played a key role in a grand jury indictment that now charges Williams with first and second degree manslaughter and second degree assault.
Fitzpatrick says when it came to a possible murder charge, he consulted with homicide prosecutors from across the state and found the charge wouldn't fit the facts of this case.
One challenge: Proving Williams acted with the depraved indifference to human life that would be necessary for a successful murder two charge.
"If he made some statements, 'I'm gonna kill that guy,' a whole constellation of things that could have been present that are not present here," said Fitzpatrick.
The charges do carry lengthy prison time. The maximum penalties are 25 years for manslaughter one, 15 years for manslaughter two and seven years for the assault charge.
"There isn't, in the State of New York, a proper way to balance the scales when you put Mr. Gifford's life on one hand and time that Mr. Williams may face in prison on the other hand. You can try to have a jury, have a court, have a system reflect the seriousness of this crime and that's what we'll try to do in this case," said Fitzpatrick.
Williams also faces an unrelated weapons charge that could result in an additional 15 years in prison. Fitzpatrick says he'd ask that Williams serve his sentences consecutively if convicted.