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Tension fills courtroom as killer is sentenced

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 30, 2000


LARGO -- The two mothers looked at each other from opposite sides of an unbridgeable chasm, both struggling with their grief and anger.

One lost a son to a bullet. The other lost the son who fired that bullet to a prison cell.

After a tense exchange, both walked out of a courtroom in tears.

A Pinellas circuit judge on Wednesday sentenced Rodney Stafford to life in prison for the shooting death of Eric Gaye, rejecting a leniency plea by Stafford's mother.

Gaye, a 17-year-old father-to-be and junior at St. Petersburg High School, was shot to death in August 1998 as he waited for food at a takeout window outside a St. Petersburg restaurant.

Stafford, 21, convicted of second-degree murder last month, was aiming at someone else with whom he had argued but hit Gaye as he fired seven shots from a handgun into a crowd.

Before the judge sentenced Stafford, his mother, Darcy, addressed Jackie Gaye, the victim's mother, and asked her to forgive her son.

"I know you hate Rodney," Mrs. Stafford said.

"No, lady, I don't hate," Mrs. Gaye said. "Only God has that power."

"God has to deal with Rodney," Mrs. Stafford said. "Rodney and God will have to deal with that ... Rodney told you how sorry he is."

"Your son is a murderer," Mrs. Gaye answered in a barely audible voice. "No, he's not. He made a terrible mistake."

"Your son is a killer."

"I'm very sorry for your loss. I truly am," Mrs. Stafford said. "I don't know what else to say."

"Lady, don't say anything to me," Mrs. Gaye said.

Under state sentencing guidelines, Circuit Judge Dee Anna Farnell could have sentenced Stafford to anything from 27 years in prison to life without the possibility of parole. She called the shooting a senseless, tragic act.

"You changed your life forever that day," the judge told Stafford. "And Mr. Gaye's life was ended."

In the courtroom, Gaye's girlfriend, Martha Dennis, held the couple's daughter, Ericka Shaphrina Gaye, who was born a month after her father died.

Stafford was charged with first-degree murder. But a jury returned a lesser charge of second-degree murder after Stafford testified that he fired seven shots from a 9 mm handgun at a rival to frighten him, not to kill.

Jurors also convicted him of two counts of attempted second-degree murder.

Stafford, 19 at the time of the shooting, had gotten into an argument with another teenager outside the fast food restaurant.

Stafford, a Kenneth City resident who had recently graduated from Dixie Hollins High School, testified that he got his gun and returned to the restaurant intent on putting a scare into Sharrod Devell Holmes, the 19-year-old with whom he argued.

As Gaye arrived to order fried gizzards and onion rings, Stafford, a passenger in a car driving by, extended a gun out the car window and fired the shots into a crowd of 10 people.

Stafford testified that he tried to fire the shots into the ground. But two hit Gaye, who died of internal bleeding. A woman was hit in the foot and survived. Holmes was unharmed.

Stafford asked Judge Farnell if he could turn and face Gaye's family so that he could apologize to them directly. The judge refused.

As he looked at the judge, Stafford said, "I'm so very sorry for what I did. I don't understand what happened. You lost a great person for something stupid I did.

"I have to live with that the rest of my life. I know in my heart Eric knows I didn't mean to do this to him. If I could trade places with him, God knows I would."

Prosecutor Bill Loughery said Stafford's inability to accept responsibility angered him.

"He says, "I don't understand why it happened,' " Loughery said. "Well, it happened because he pulled the trigger."

Darcy Stafford, who recently lost another son in a car crash, said she understood the Gaye family's pain.

"I can say from my own experience," she told the judge, "that this is the worst thing a mother can go through."

Jackie Gaye told Farnell, "I almost lost my mind."

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