Family and friends of three Fresno men convicted of attempted murder began to cry Wednesday when a judge sentenced the defendants to life in prison.
Fresno County Superior Court Judge Arlan Harrell said it was a difficult decision because, he said, the family and friends of defendants Donte Hawkins, Isaiah Runderson and Jalonie Jones are good, Christian people. They loved the defendants and did the best they could to teach them right from wrong, the judge said.
But Harrell said the three defendants did a callous, planned act in robbing and shooting a former college basketball player in March 2015 for the benefit of a criminal street gang.
“Obviously, you have invested a lot of time and effort in these young men,” Harrell told those who packed his courtroom. “And you never envisioned them being in court and in a situation like this.”
“Unfortunately, those high hopes you had for them fell short,” the judge said in sentencing Hawkins to 39 years to life in prison, Runderson to 37 years to life in prison and Jones to 49 years to life in prison.
Unfortunately, those high hopes you had for them fell short.
Superior Court Judge Arlan Harrell
Jones, 18, received the stiffest penalty because Harrell identified him as the gunman who shot Brandon Morris, a former basketball player for the University of Georgia. The judge described Hawkins, 22, as the leader who induced the other defendants to act. Runderson, 21, lured Morris to a secluded area to be robbed and shot, the judge said.
The case was high profile because Hawkins was once a suspect in the killing of 9-year-old Janessa Ramirez in January 2015. He was never charged with that crime.
Two months later, Fresno police say, Hawkins, Runderson and Jones tried to kill Morris near Ashlan and Polk avenues, west of Highway 99.
In March this year, a jury found the trio guilty of attempted murder and robbery of Morris and of assaulting Morris and his friends Briawna Brown and Cortez Conners with a firearm. Jurors also said the three committed the crime for the benefit of the Flyboys, a southwest Fresno criminal street gang.
Though Jones was 16 at the time, he was tried as an adult because of the seriousness of the crime.
Prior to trial, the defendants were offered plea agreements that would have given them prison sentences of less than 15 years, but they rejected them.
The case was considered high profile because one of the defendants was once a suspect in the killing of 9-year-old Janessa Ramirez in January 2015, but was never charged with that crime.
Prosecutor Scott Hoedt told jurors the attempted murder and robbery of Morris was a case of misplaced trust. According to Hoedt, Morris was friends with Runderson and Hawkins.
Both sides agree that on March 27, 2015, Morris, Brown and Conners were partying in Los Angeles when they decided to come to Fresno. They intended to purchase either a “gold grill”– a mouthpiece made of gold – a gun or marijuana for Morris, the defense lawyers said.
Hoedt said Morris, Brown and Conners drove to Fresno, where they met Hawkins, Runderson and Jones, who were in a car with two other men. Morris and Hawkins got out of their cars and began talking, the prosecutor said. Then Hawkins beckoned Runderson and Jones to accompany him, Hoedt said.
Suddenly, Morris was grabbed from behind. Runderson and Jones then pointed guns at Morris while Hawkins robbed Morris of his cellphone and gold chains, Hoedt said.
When Jones pointed a gun at Morris’ face, Morris pushed it away and was shot in the neck, Hoedt said.
Hoedt told the jury that Morris also was shot in the hip as he lay on the ground. He got up but then was shot in the calf.
When police questioned Morris, he told them that Jones had shot him, Hoedt said. He also identified Hawkins and Runderson as participants in the crime.
At Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, family and friends of the trio tearfully begged the judge to give the defendants lesser sentences. They said the defendants should be punished but not with a prison sentence that gives them no chance of parole until they are well into their late 50s or early 60s.
But Harrell told them he was bound by the law, including one that mandated a 25 years to life prison term for using a gun in the crime. The defendants received additional time for the attempted murder, robbery and assault charges.
In announcing the sentence, Harrell told defendants that one of them had wished that he could take back what he had done. “I’m sure your entire circle of family and friends wish the same thing,” the judge said. “Frankly, so do I.”