During a heated family argument, a man is sucker punched while holding his 14-month-old daughter. He pulls out a gun. He shoots once, and shoots again, killing his former stepfather.
A murder trial results in a hung jury. A second one does, too. Both times, some jurors sided with a father defending himself, some said the second shot was not justified.
The unusual and complicated case resulting from an incident between two Rochester men at a West Seneca sports facility was officially resolved Thursday in State Supreme Court.
Justice Russell P. Buscaglia handed down the sentence he committed to in April when Andre Lewis, 41, pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter in the killing of Robert Todd Echols, 54. Lewis, who had been facing second-degree murder charges that carried a maximum sentence of 25 years to life, was sentenced to five years in prison and five years of post-release supervision.
Thursday provided closure to the legal portion of the April 29, 2017, incident. The argument took place in the lobby of the Niagara Frontier Sports Complex, 425 Meyer Road, following a girls’ basketball game in which Echols’ 13-year-old daughter had played.
“He stole the person who meant the world to me,” Robert Todd Echols’ widow, Tammy, said of Lewis in an emotional address to the court, which included about 25 onlookers.
“He was handsome, a gentle giant, had a smile like no other,” she said through tears. “He was my left arm. He was my best friend. The sense of loss is immeasurable. I am heartbroken.”
Lewis, dressed in a white T-shirt, jeans and sneakers, stood mostly motionless, facing the judge, during Tammy Echols’ comments. Teo X. Siguenza, one of his Rochester-based attorneys, told Buscaglia that Lewis had asked him to speak for his client.
“This is a tragedy,” Siguenza said. “This is an unfortunate, unfortunate event, which my client is here today to accept responsibility for.”
Following the hearing, Siguenza said that for the entire episode, including the plea deal, "this case was really about that baby," referring to Lewis' now 3-year-old daughter.
"Obviously it led to what happened that day, and it is part to what led to a plea," Siguenza said. "If you had even the slightest chance of never seeing your kid, versus seeing them in three years? ... He's always acted as a loving father, trying to protect his daughter. He shared with us that the hardest thing he had to do was dropping her off at day care today."
Siguenza said the three years he mentioned factored in the five-year prison sentence, subtracting 13 months Lewis has already served, and an optimistic expectation of a reduced prison sentence for good behavior.
Lewis' role as a father to his daughter was an important factor in this case, said Erie County District Attorney John J. Flynn, whose office argued in both trials in 2018 that the shooting was not justified under the law.
"The defense had the fact that his client was holding a baby. That was their strong suit," said Flynn. "The weak suit for the defense, and what they had to be really concerned with, was the second shot.
"I’m not excusing the first shot, but as a human being, I get it. The baby is out of his hand now and he shoots him again, a second time, on the ground. That was the best part of my case."
Defense attorneys Siguenza and Mike Ansaldi said that 23 of the 28 jurors in the two trials voted to find Lewis not guilty.
"I've never had a jury be so involved with the folks who wanted him acquitted," Siguenza said. "At the end of the first trial, we had one juror apologize to us, that he wasn't able to bring him home."
Flynn's office found similar feelings among the juries.
"The victim here threw the first punch, and threw the punch against the defendant while he was holding his 14-month-old baby – a lot of jurors didn’t like that," Flynn said. "I need 12 jurors to not like that second shot, and I need 12 jurors to overcome the baby factor. So it was a risk for both of us."
The plea agreement was reached only after Flynn talked to Tammy Echols, who said she didn't want to go through a third trial.
"When I have a situation like this, and especially with that second shot, I’ve got to get justice, so I’m going to go as long as I have to," Flynn said. "The fact that the widow here told me that enough’s enough … that’s when I take a step back and say 'OK, I’ve got to put my determination aside and do the right thing for everybody.' And at the end of the day, the right thing got done."