Circuit Judge Terence Perkins this afternoon sentenced Brenan Hill to life in prison for the murder of Savannah Gonzalez in the Publix parking lot off Belle Terre Parkway the morning of March 26, 2021.
Gonzalez was 22 when Hill shot her that morning. She lived, incapacitated, hospitalized and unaware, until Nov. 9, 2022, when she died.
A jury found Hill guilty of second degree murder in mid-September, following trial evidence that showed Hill to have lied to everyone he spoke to, including his mother, starting the moment after the shooting. He had first blamed the shooting on a non-existent Black robber. He eventually changed his story, calling the shooting an accident, though even then his story changed as his first claim–that the gun’s cocking mechanism was not working–was disproved.
Hill was facing a mandatory minimum term of 25 years in prison, up to life. The prosecution argued for life. Gerald Bettman, Hill’s attorney, argued for 25 years.
“At this time 25 years is fair,” Bettman told the judge. “Everyone assumes he’s a monster. He’s not. It was an accident.” Bettman argued that the prosecution’s expert witnesses who’d ruled out an accidental discharge of the gun were wrong. “I ask that you give him 25, which is the minimum you can give him, but it’s a lot of time.”
“I remind counsel that this case started as an attempted murder case,” Perkins said. “Grievous, horrible injuries of course, brain damage, brain injuries. But it started as an attempted murder case. I can’t imagine the pain this family had in losing their loved one, their family member, their friend, not once but twice, and that they had to endure that over more than a year’s period of time, almost 18 months’ period of time. I can’t even imagine that. And there’s nothing I can do that that changes that one way or the other.” But he could sentence Hill to life in prison, and did.
For an hour today, members of Savannah’s family addressed the court–nine of her family members and friends had turned out, and dozens seemed to follow online–as did members of Hill’s family (three of whom were present), as did Hill himself. On Hill’s side, the shooting was repeatedly portrayed as an accident and hill as a caring, compassionate, gentle man, while Hill himself attempted to rewrite the trial’s record. As he portrayed it, he had just had one bad day. “You seen me at my lowest and weakest point. That’s not who I am,” he said. He said he’d loved Savannah more than he’d loved himself.
He acknowledged lying: “I was afraid to tell the police the truth, for this exact reason right here, this position I’m sitting, in because I knew they weren’t there to help Savannah, nothing that they could have done would have made a difference anyway. I did the most important thing, which was to rush her to the hospital immediately.”
Actually, as Assistant State Attorney melissa Clark reminded the court, he didn’t. He got out of his car, looked for a spot to hide the gun, and dug it in under a tree, covering it up with leaves, then called his mother, and lied about what had happened–he told her, too, that he’d been held up–then called 911 and lied, then started the string of lies to deputies at the hospital, sending police on what Clark described as a “wild goose chase,” looking for a Black assailant around Graham Swamp Park, well out of the way of where any of the incident had happened. He had claimed to have been the subject of a robbery near the Microtel, where he and Savannah had been staying–they were homeless–until the hotel had them leave.
They were upset that day, not having a place to stay. Savannah was due at work at Burger Bros near Publix. Hill drove her there. He’d recently bought a gun, against her wishes. She’d been afraid he’d use the gun against her, Clark argued to the jury, and again to the judge today–as, in fact, he did. Savannah changed her mind outside of Burger Bros. She didn’t want to go to work anymore. The two were arguing, according to a co-worker of Savannah’s, who saw her in the car with Hill, in the parking lot. Moments later, he’d shot her.
“It was said in this courtroom that she didn’t have a family. She has tons of family, the family he never met because he’s not our kind,” Savannah’s aunt testified today. “I would have been embarrassed too, to bring him around. The ripple effect of his actions that left deep scars on our family as a whole. We’ve had to watch our children, her cousins, that looked at her more like a sister be destroyed when we told them about Savannah on march 26, and then again another wave of devastation when she passed.”
Struggling through tears, she described Savannah as “a ray of sunshine. She’s the hand you need in the dark. She was the best time you ever had. She loved like no other and her empathy just overflows or everyone, even the people who treated her poorly.” She described the void in her life before turning to the sentence: ‘Rehabilitation isn’t in his blood,” she said of Hill, who sat next to Bettman at the defendant’s table, looking at each witness in turn as they spoke.
“A life for a life, right?” Savannah’s aunt, who also described herself as her godmother, said. “This is a pain that will radiate for ever. This is our life sentence.”
Savannah’s cousin had trouble even starting to speak, until the judge asked her to put her phone down, look at him, and address him conversationally. Only then was she able to collect herself, eventually describing how she’d gotten a text from Savannah on March 25, the day before the shooting, when Savannah told her she loved her. She had not replied. Now, she addressed Hill directly, told him she loathed him, and said how she regretted attending the trial only to see videos of how Hill had demeaned and insulted Gonzalez in her last days.
Clark, the prosecutor, showed some of those videos again, sending several members of Savannah’s family out of the courtroom: they could not bear to hear Hill screaming at her, calling her names, threatening her. Clark then showed a picture of Savannah as she had been in the year and a half after the shooting, hospitalized, then a picture of her as she had been in the fullness of her life.
Only then Perkins turned to pronouncing sentence, after ruling against a motion by the defense that the three charges against Hill amounted to double jeopardy. Hill had also been charged with aggravated battery, for which he got 25 years, and a charge of shooting into a vehicle, for which he got 15 years. He still faces unrelated drug charges, and informed Bettman that he did not want him representing him on those.