It had started with trash talk between Zaire Roberts and Phillip Haire. Roberts was 16. Haire was 18. The trash talk escalated on social media. There was taunting. There were Twitter insults. Then there was a challenge to fight, and the two Palm Coast residents did just that 13 months ago on Lewisdale Lane, meeting among a group of people not far from Haire’s house.
Haire and Roberts fought. Haire, a former football player at Matanzas High School, knocked out Roberts. Roberts came to, got up, went to his car, picked up a gun, shot Haire twice in the abdomen, left him for dead in the street and fled—all the way to Ohio, then Atlanta. He wouldn’t turn himself in until a month and a half later as U.S. Marshals were closing in.
Roberts, now 17, has been in juvenile detention since. He pleaded guilty to aggravated battery with a firearm. Today he was in Flagler County Circuit Court for his sentencing by Judge Matthew Foxman. Haire was there too, in his wheelchair, as were members of Haire’s family and Roberts’s family. Christy Opsahl, the assistant state attorney, had described the shooting as “the most reckless, dangerous and senseless act of violence there could be.”
“There were numerous other children that were out there, juveniles that were watching this fight,” Opsahl said. “And he put everyone of them at risk, not to mention any mother walking to her mailbox walking in that neighborhood, or any person pulling in their driveway, any child sitting in their living room watching cartoons could have easily been hit by a stray bullet from Mr. Roberts, in a completely reckless, dangerous and senseless way.”
Though Roberts was eligible for the sort of youthful offender sentence that would have him at worst released by the time he was 21, she asked for 25 years in prison, because the sort of plea he tendered also made him potentially eligible for up to 30 years in prison.
Foxman asked Haire what he thought.
“I don’t think he should get 25 years,” Haire said.
“What do you think should happen?” the judge asked him.
“I don’t know. I don’t think he should get 25 years.” At the beginning of the hearing, Haire had said, as he was pulling up near a bench and loud enough that the judge had to tell him to be quiet, that Roberts was innocent. Now he spoke under his breath as the judge asked him questions, low enough that much of what he said was difficult to understand. “I know we both was young, so I don’t feel he should do 25,” he told the judge before suggesting that the roles could have easily been reversed: “I feel like it could have been on each side of it.”
The judge also heard from Haire’s father, who described the weeks of paralysis his son went through and the difficulties of his recovery—weeks in intensive car, his lower extremities paralyzed, weeks in rehab– the pressures it placed on the family (Haire is one of six children).
The judge also heard from Roberts’s mother, grandmother and a friend of his mother who had mentored and counseled Roberts in a youth program at the NAACP. They all described Roberts as a leader, a loving boy, a young man with a promising future who, one of the women said, had hit “a bump in the road,” words that immediately prompted a rebuke in tone, if not in words, from Foxman: “it’s a big bump, though,” the judge said.
“It’s a huge bump, it’s a ridiculous bump, sometimes as parents we try to do what we do but sometimes when you have outside influences you get a different result sometimes, you know, unfortunately,” Roseanne Mays, who had mentored Roberts at the NAACP and is a close friend of his mother’s, said. “That’s not the kind of young man he is.”
The women each in turn asked for leniency, then Roberts himself spoke, apologizing to Haire and his family, taking responsibility,
Kurt Teifke, Roberts’s attorney, read from a recent Supreme Court opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy—the January decision that referred to excessive sentences “for children whose crimes reflect transient immaturity,” and underlined the psychological insights of that decision into the less-formed brains and judgments of juveniles who carry out seemingly adult acts without gauging the consequences as adults.
Roberts wanted the last word and got it, reading from a prepared statement—the sort of rhetorically polished statement few 17-year-olds can pull off on their own—for just over two minutes, just after his attorney told him to read it. “First I would like to sincerely apologize to the victim, my family and to you. I’m truly sorry for my actions,” he said, accepting that he had affected families “in drastic ways” and taking responsibility for his actions. He alluded to what his mother and grandmother had spoken of, the abuse he suffered from his father for five years, psychological and physical, and the lack of parenting he suffered when he was with him in Ohio, until his return to his mother in Palm Coast not long before the shooting. He hung out with the wrong crowd, he said. But he’s tried to mend his ways since his incarceration: he wants to be an aeronautical engineer. “Please give me another chance,” he told the judge.
Then Foxman spoke.
“These are the types of moment where to be quite honest with you I don’t really enjoy my job. I really don’t. Everyone in the room needs to prepare themselves for disappointment for what I’m about to do. You know, one of the things that I’ve had to deal with in my entire career has for whatever reason gravitated towards violent offenses. It just continues to be the same, year after year, of senselessness. There’s no purpose to the events that are driving us here today. And we have wonderful human beings in this room who are dragged here to deal with the human misery that’s been created by a senseless act. And I’m so sorry for that. And I would share with you, Mr. Haire, I appreciate you being respectful in what you’ve said, and I heard you. But at the same time I can’t have violence out there in a way that could endanger innocent civilians, even if it was just two guys kind of working it out, if you know what I mean. That being said, I can’t throw away a human being. And Mr. Roberts you have a life worth leading. But at the same time you got this close to killing somebody, and I don’t know what you did to him for a lifetime, but I’m not going to treat you as a youthful offender or a juvenile.”
Foxman said the state had “every right to ask for the 25, but I’m not going to do it,” he said.
He sentenced Zaire Roberts to seven years in prison. He won’t likely serve that long: he’ll get credit for time served, and he may be released after serving 85 percent of his sentence, so he could end up in prison less than five years. He could be out when he’s around 22.
“This is enough for you to get out while you’re young and be the human being that we’re proud of, from your family’s side. But I can’t go lower,” Foxman said. “Folks, please understand, I don’t want to go higher, because I want Mr. Roberts to be somebody that we’re proud of later. So that’s the number. Make it work. Don’t let your family down. Continue to improve yourself.”