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Man convicted of manslaughter in fatal shooting in Cheektowaga park

Prosecutors wanted a murder conviction. The defense hoped for second-degree manslaughter.

But neither side seemed dissatisfied Tuesday when Dontre Jones was convicted on a charge that fell between those two extremes: first-degree manslaughter for fatally shooting a teenager in a busy Cheektowaga park two years ago.

In a non-jury trial, Erie County Judge Michael F. Pietruszka acquitted on Jones a second-degree murder charge following a three-day trial but convicted him of the lesser charge.

Pietruszka said the prosecution had proven that no one was using deadly physical force against Jones, that he was the aggressor and that he could have safely retreated from the situation.

“Therefore, the defendant was not justified in using deadly physical force,” the judge said.

Jones faces a possible sentence ranging from 5 to 25 years in prison when he’s sentenced manslaughter Aug. 26.

No one disputed that Jones, 18 at the time, fatally shot Ira Watkins Jr., 19, an Erie Community College student and Taco Bell manager who was caught in the gunfire on the evening of May 31, 2011. As many as 75 people had gathered in Cheektowaga Town Park that night.

The shooting stemmed from an argument earlier that day between rival gangs from Humason Avenue and Guilford Street, prosecutors have said. Neither Jones nor Watkins was involved in that dispute.

The question at trial was Jones’ intent, and whether he was justified in the shooting.

Without elaborating, Pietruszka said the prosecution failed to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, the elements of second-degree murder. So he acquitted Jones on that charge.

But he found him guilty of both first-degree manslaughter and criminal possession of a weapon.

Afterwards, neither side seemed at all upset about the verdict.

James F. Bargnesi, head of the Homicide Bureau in the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, was asked whether he was surprised by the judge’s ruling.

“I’m not,” Bargnesi told reporters. “I think this is a reasonable view of the evidence, and we’re satisfied with putting this case to bed after two years.”

When asked about the question of Jones’ intent, Bargnesi said that the distance – the roughly 45 to 60 feet between the shooter and his victim – apparently played a part in the judge’s decision.

“Both sides of that could be argued and were argued during the trial,” said Bargnesi, who prosecuted the case with Assistant District Attorney Patrick B. Shanahan.

Bargnesi also had high praise for Cheektowaga police, who had to crack open what he called a “very, very difficult case.”

Defense attorney Andrew C. LoTempio said he had hoped for a conviction on only a second-degree manslaughter charge, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 15 years.

“But we’re not completely dissatisfied with the verdict,” LoTempio told reporters outside the courtroom.

LoTempio did take issue with the ruling on Jones’ intent in the shooting.

“I don’t think my client intended to kill anybody,” he said. “I don’t even think he wanted to injure anybody.”

LoTempio also suggested his client had reason to believe he was at risk of deadly physical force.

“There was an ongoing dispute all spring between these two groups of kids,” he added.