Brenan Hill, the 34-year-old man a jury found guilty of murder in the shooting death of Savannah La-Rynn Gonzalez, 22, in March 2021 in Palm Coast, was in court this afternoon for his sentencing. So was his attorney, Gerald Bettman. They thought it was just a formality–that Hill faced a mandatory sentence of life in prison, with no leeway for the judge.
But he didn’t.
His conviction on a second-degree murder charge is a mandatory 25 years up to life: He may well end up with a life sentence, Circuit Judge Terence Perkins told the assembled in court. But he didn’t want to deny Bettman the chance to prepare arguments or put on witnesses that could mitigate the sentence, and potentially limit it to 25 years.
“I know that family members have come a long way,” Perkins said, looking at the dozen-odd members of Gonzalez’s family and friends in the gallery, and more on zoom, including Hill’s ex. She was also a victim of one of Hill’s assaults, and is the mother of a child they have in common. “I apologize,” the judge continued. “Certainly not anything that we saw coming, but I want to do this once and I want to make sure we do it right. And so we’re not going to rush the process. We’re going to do it right the first time.”
The sentencing hearing was rescheduled to February 6 at 1:30 p.m.
Perkins had just concluded a six-hour sentencing hearing in a pair of unrelated cases that made his point, though no one in the courtroom had reason to know it: despite another commitment in his chambers and the 1:30 Hill hearing, Perkins insisted that the earlier sentencing’s lawyers take their time making their cases. It paid off for the defense, as the sentences imposed proved significantly less than even the minimum recommended, and far less than what prosecutors had asked for. Testimony and evidence clearly swayed the judge’s decision. (See: “Gabriella Alo Sentenced to 6 Years in Prison, Her Brother to 2 in Attacks in Flagler Beach.”)
Bettman, who has a local record of winning cases against huge odds, will try to do the same with Hill. He cannot win anything below 25 years.
But for Hill, even that would be like winning more than half a life back: if he were sentenced to 25 years, he’d actually be out in a little over 18 and a half, because he’s already served almost three years, awaiting trial–that would be credited to his prison sentence–and he would be eligible for gain time, or early release after serving 85 percent of his sentence. He would leave prison in his early 50s.
The prosecutor in the case, Assistant State Attorney Melissa Clark, is likely to push for something closer to life.
Hill, for his part, may have been surprised by the turn of events. He did not address the court, and even after learning that he was not getting sentenced to life–at least not yet–he waited to be taken out of the room, downcast. When Hill sat for his trial in September–with the benefit of wearing a suit and no visible shackles, so as not to prejudice the jury, as opposed to his bright-orange jail jumpsuit he wore today–he had trimmed his beard and his hair and wore glasses, looking like a yuppy, cocky lawyer–if perhaps one capable of mishandling a firearm, and lying: his trial showcased his compulsive ability to lie. Today he was back to a more scraggly look, the beard seemingly uncut since the trial, the hair unruly, the glasses gone. It was as if Hill had resigned himself to the inevitable.
The defense in late September filed a motion for a new trial on 26 grounds. Bettman is arguing that the evidence doesn’t support the verdict–his position is that the shooting was accidental, that no man in his right mind would shoot his girlfriend in a busy parking lot during the morning rush: Hill shot Gonzalez in the Publix parking lot off Belle Terre and Palm Coast parkways, then hid the gun behind a bush in the lot, within sight of innumerable shops, and drove to the hospital, where his lies to cops, his mother, detectives and others began. He claimed he had been the target of an attempted armed robbery and the assailant’s gun had gone off as Hill wrestled with it.
Among Bettman’s arguments in his motion: “Not allowing the defendant’s attorney to demonstrate the accidental propensity of the weapon so that the jury would understand the defense regarding accidental decocking.” The prosecution had witnesses who said the weapon could almost never be accidentally decocked. But the motion also makes odd claims,: “Allowing illegal non-consensual recordings of the Defendant by the victim contrary to the laws of Florida.” While Gonzalez had made video recordings with her phone of Hill abusing her, Hill had never disputed the recordings and appeared indifferent to them. (See the full motion here.)
Bettman also filed a motion to strike two counts on double jeopardy grounds. Perkins will rule on the motions at the Feb. 6 hearing. For Hill, that means spending the holidays at the county jail instead of at what the state prison system calls a “reception center,” where state inmates are first admitted and housed for several months before they are assigned to a permanent prison. One of his family members was in the courtroom today.
Hill also has two other cases pending, adding up to four third-degree felony drug charges. The status of those cases will be addressed at the Feb. 6 hearing. The disposition of the cases could affect Hill’s final sentence.