NIAGARA COUNTY COURT
- Richard A. Fernandez hesitantly admitted Monday that he fatally shot
Robert A. Keller last April 3 in Niagara Falls.
Fernandez, 50, of Gregory Place, Grand Island, pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of second-degree manslaughter. The maximum sentence he could receive is five to 15 years in prison. Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon Sperrazza will decide March 16.
As is the case in all plea bargains, Sperrazza recited the list of the constitutional rights Fernandez was giving up and asked, "Knowing all that, do you still wish to plead guilty?" Several seconds of silence followed.
"Can I have five minutes?" asked Fernandez, who originally was charged with second-degree murder. He and defense attorney Herbert L. Greenman then left the courtroom.
When they returned, Greenman explained that Fernandez had wanted to make sure he would not have to say that he intentionally killed Keller.
Keller, 38, of 76th Street, died when a bullet penetrated his aorta. He was shot after he confronted Fernandez, who was in a van with a woman in an alley off 37th Street. The encounter followed a party in Keller's home at which drugs were liberally used. Keller was armed with a long stick, which the woman told police looked like a shovel handle.
"I opened the passenger-side window to talk to him," Fernandez told the court. "He opened the door and started swinging the stick. I reached for a gun. He hit me with a stick, and the gun went off."
"I don't see anyone taking responsibility for criminal conduct here," Sperrazza said.
"He had his finger on the trigger of the gun," Greenman said. "He was actually facing Mr. Keller."
Greenman also said the gun was unregistered and that he and District Attorney Matthew J. Murphy III had agreed that Fernandez's conduct met the definition of recklessly causing a death that the manslaughter law specifies.
After several silent minutes of reading the grand jury minutes, Sperrazza agreed that Fernandez's version more or less matched the testimony that led to his indictment and accepted the guilty plea.
The prosecution, however, reserved the right to challenge Fernandez's version at sentencing.
"There is some issue with the people's proof pertaining to whether this may have been an accidental shooting," Assistant District Attorney Michael W. McNelis said. "The people's position is, it was not."
When Sperrazza asked why a plea deal was being offered, McNelis said, "Some of the people's witnesses, they're less than credible."
"Most, if not all, of the eyewitnesses to the event had been using cocaine in the hours or moments leading up to the event," he later explained. "Their judgment was impaired."
Greenman said that Fernandez decided to plead guilty and that he made no recommendation to his client to do so. Fernandez also was charged with weapons felonies, which could have brought him sentences even stiffer than the manslaughter charge. An unrelated drug charge had been dismissed.
"If it was an accident, why didn't they get him some help?" demanded Jeffrey Ellis, Keller's brother-in-law. "They took off like the criminals they were. They left him to die in an alley. . . . He didn't deserve to die in an alley with a bullet hole in his heart."
"According to the grand jury minutes, this all started out of a drug transaction in which (Fernandez) thought he was shorted," Sperrazza noted.
Greenman said Keller confronted Fernandez three times that night and said Fernandez always tried to avoid the face-offs.
"Bob was never dealing drugs," Ellis insisted. "These people took over Bob's house because of this disease he had," referring to drug addiction.
"Bob was a good person. These drugs are ruining our city," Ellis said.