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Driver pleads guilty in boy's death by Niagara St. library, faces prison

A Buffalo man accused of running over and killing an 8-year-old boy last spring has agreed to a plea deal that will send him to prison, Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III announced Monday.

Lavon Turrentine, 20, of East Parade Street, pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter in the April 9, 2010, death of Tumaini Philbert, Sedita said. That charge carries a possible maximum prison sentence of 2 1/3 to 7 years.

"He's going to go to state prison," Sedita said. "The length of time is up to the judge."

In what authorities called a bizarre case, Turrentine was teaching a friend, Brianna Hightower, 19, of Wilson Street, how to drive when the vehicle she was driving struck Tumaini after he and family members had left the Niagara Branch Library on Porter Avenue.

Turrentine and Hightower then left the vehicle before returning and switching positions inside. While family members and witnesses screamed at Turrentine to stop, he ran over the boy again, fatally injuring him, while attempting to pull the vehicle over to the curb.

Both drivers remained at the scene until police arrived.

Turrentine was indicted in January on a first-degree manslaughter charge that could have led to a sentence of 5 to 15 years in prison.

Sedita said the plea agreement had several conditions, including prison time, a waiving of the right to appeal and the approval of the boy's family.

Language would have been a key issue if the case had gone to trial, prosecutor Kelley A. Omel said. While family members and witnesses pleaded with Turrentine and Hightower not to move the car after the initial incident, those pleas were made in Kirundi, Spanish and English. The family is from Burundi in East Africa.

Hightower has pleaded guilty to reckless driving for her role in the incident. She could receive up to 30 days in jail.

Sentencing is set for July 15.

Tumaini, a student at School 90 in Buffalo, lived with his parents, five sisters and one brother, all refugees, in a Niagara Street apartment. He was known for his ever-present smile, along with his quick grasp of the English language.

Having spent his first five years in a Tanzanian refugee camp, Tumaini really appreciated the promise of life in America, his family members have said.

"We eat well," Tumaini would tell his mother. "We go to school. We go to the library. It's a gift from God."

e-mail: gwarner@buffnews.com

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