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Prison term imposed for fatal knifing in the Falls

A Niagara Falls man who stabbed a friend to death during a quarrel at a card game was sentenced Monday to four to eight years in prison.

Wilbert Hayes III, 26, had pleaded guilty Nov. 28 to second-degree manslaughter, abandoning a self-defense claim in the death of Donald T. Nix, 26.

Nix was stabbed in the chest late March 15 in an apartment on Ashland Avenue in the Falls. He died in the early hours of March 16.

Niagara County Judge Matthew J. Murphy III imposed the maximum sentence under the terms of the plea deal.

Murphy had threatened to reconsider after Hayes failed to make contact with a probation officer for a presentencing interview. Because of that, Murphy revoked bail three weeks ago and jailed Hayes.

Assistant Public Defender Matthew P. Pynn said that there was a communications mix-up.

He said that Hayes' phone had no voice mail and that while he told the court he lived on Pierce Avenue with his mother, Hayes actually was spending his time with the mother of his young daughter on South Avenue.

"One of the factors in taking this plea was, he wants to see his child grow up. If he serves the minimum, he'll be able to see his child go to kindergarten," Pynn said. He asked Murphy to impose the minimum sentence of three to six years, but Murphy declined.

Pynn said Hayes had a chance of acquittal on the grounds of self-defense. "I think everyone agrees it would have been an extremely close case," he said.

But if the jury had convicted Hayes of the original charge of first-degree manslaughter, he would have faced five to 25 years behind bars.

Assistant Public Defender Robert A. Zucco said, "It is the people's position, and it always has been, that the violence had defused to a point where deadly physical force was not necessary, and the defendant brought deadly physical force back into the fray. There has to be consequences for that."

Nix's uncle, Roderick Brown of Niagara Falls, said that Monday would have been his nephew's birthday. "The violence just needs to stop, because nobody wins, and everybody loses," Brown said. "We get no joy out of seeing somebody go to prison and waste valuable years of his life, and we don't get to see Donald."

Hayes said, "I would like to apologize to the victim's family for the pain I caused. I didn't mean for it to happen. From day one, I took responsibility. I turned myself in."

Pynn said Nix was the best friend of Hayes' older brother. "There's a real sadness underlying what happened with these two young men," Pynn said. Pynn said that in the statements given by the men at the card game, "Nobody could remember what this argument started as. It has to be something so frivolous. I'll use the word 'stupid.' "

The question of fault remains. Zucco said the state Crime Victims Board had refused to pay funeral expenses of $5,640 "because [Nix] was partially at fault."

Zucco asked Murphy to order Hayes to reimburse a life insurance company for the money; the judge refused.

Murphy said, "There is some basis for the claim [Nix] was partially at fault."