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Football player gets 15 years in prison

The Tampa Bay Storm linebacker gets the maximum sentence for killing a bicyclist.

By KEVIN GRAHAM
Published July 15, 2005

TAMPA - Darion Conner asked for forgiveness, calling himself "a child of God," but the Tampa Bay Storm linebacker found no mercy Thursday in a Hillsborough courtroom.

Not from Judge Ronald Ficarrotta, who sentenced him to the maximum 15 years in prison for getting drunk and running down Carrollwood bicyclist Jonathan Michael Conklin in September 2004.

And not from the victim's mother, Istra Ra, who repeatedly called Conner a "disgrace."

"I don't care how sorry you are, sir," a visibly angry Ra said as she looked Conner in the face at his sentencing hearing. "I cannot kiss and make this better. He's dead. Gone forever. I cannot rock him. I cannot hold him. I never will."

A jury last week found Conner guilty of DUI-manslaughter and vehicular homicide in Conklin's death.

Thursday, Conner sat next to his attorney and cried. He hung his head and shuddered as Ra berated him.

The judge said he struggled with delivering a fair sentence to Conner, 37, but kept coming back to three elements:

Conklin was dead.

Conner's blood-alcohol level at the time of the crash was 0.27, more than three times the level at which state law presumes impairment.

And, during the trial, a toxicologist said Conner likely consumed 16 to 21 drinks before he got behind the wheel.

"I disagree with the statements that he made a mistake," Ficarrotta said. "He didn't make a mistake. He committed a criminal act."

This marked Conner's seventh arrest and fifth conviction for a DUI, said Ron Kurpiers, Conner's defense attorney.

Conner grew up the seventh of 11 children in rural Mississippi and lived with his grandmother until he was 8. He grew up in a Christian home, his family said. It wasn't until Conner's sophomore year at Jackson State University that he first drank alcohol, and the following year, in 1990, he received his first DUI conviction, Kurpiers said.

A second DUI conviction came in 1992, followed by one in September 1993 and another two months later.

"This was a guy who was on top of the world in 1990 when he was drafted into the NFL," Kurpiers said, "and he has lost it all. Just about anything bad that has happened in Darion's life has happened because of alcohol."

Conner didn't speak during his two-day trial, but he addressed the court Thursday.

"To your honor, the state and to Mr. Conklin's family, I'd like to show you my deepest sympathy," he said. "If I could do anything to change that night, I really (would)."

Conner asked the judge to consider his community service in the area. He said he had been active in the Boys & Girls Club and Joshua House, and that he always gave his time to help those he could.

"In the newspaper, I'm known as an athlete," he said. "But my name is Darion Conner, and I'm a child of God ... Please, in Jesus' name, forgive me."

Seated behind Conner in the courtroom were family, friends and Tampa Bay Storm players, as well as Tim Marcum, the team's coach and general manager, who cried as he spoke to the court on Conner's behalf.

Conner's brother David and sister Patricia White both asked the judge for leniency. Their father sat in court during sentencing. Their mother died two months ago.

Conner's attorney presented the court with a letter from a Mississippi state representative, who knew Conner as a child, and the mayor of a Mississippi town, both asking the judge for mercy.

The victim's girlfriend spoke for him.

Conklin "is an only child," Cindy Hopper said. "He doesn't have 11 brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles to stand up here and say what a wonderful person he is. But he was a wonderful person."

She said Conklin had a drinking problem, and he knew it. That's why, she said, he never got a driver's license.

"He knew he would hurt someone," Hopper said.

Thursday, the judge revoked Conner's driving privileges for life.

Kevin Graham can be reached at 813 226-3433 or kgraham@sptimes.com

[Last modified July 15, 2005, 00:37:14]


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