A refugee and one-time cycling champion from an African country was sentenced Monday to 18 years in prison for stabbing his estranged wife last year at a Wegmans store on Amherst Street.
Awet Gebreyesus, 33, of Busti Avenue, also faces deportation to Eritrea, a country in the Horn of Africa, following his prison term. But his lawyer argued against sending him back to his homeland.
“We do believe he will be subject to torture and perhaps execution,” said defense lawyer Andrew C. LoTempio.
Gebreyesus had pleaded guilty to attempted murder. He admitted he stabbed his wife, Luam Abraha, in the head and upper body on Jan. 14, 2012 in the entryway of the grocery store, where the couple was making a custody exchange of their young son.
Prosecutors have said the wound to her skull severed an artery, putting the victim in the hospital for several weeks.
Gebreyesus on Monday appeared before State Supreme Court Justice Deborah A. Haendiges and spoke through a court interpreter. He said he was ready to accept the consequences of his crime but that he did not mean to intentionally harm his wife.
The judge ordered Gebreyesus to stay away from his wife and son for 25 years.
“You are to stay away from both of them,” Haendiges said. “Even if they ... reach out to you, you should have no contact. Do you understand?”
Before sentencing, LoTempio asked the judge to consider giving Gebreyesus 15 years in prison instead of 18. LoTempio sought to clarify the presentencing report that indicated Gebreyesus fled Eritrea to avoid military service.
Gebreyesus, LoTempio said, had been the 500-meter cycling champion for Eritrea.
“He was somewhat of a noted celebrity,” LoTempio said in court.
The Eritrean government thought that those running the country’s Olympic cycling team were involved in a planned coup and questioned Gebreyesus. When Gebreyesus refused to cooperate, he fled the country and ended up in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, LoTempio said.
Gebreyesus’ behavior, however, had become a problem after he suffered a traumatic brain injury from a cycling fall, LoTempio said.
His symptoms were undiagnosed and continued after he resettled in the United States, his attorney said.
“When not medicated, he was completely delusional and thought somebody was trying to poison him,” LoTempio said. “He finally seems to be on the right medication, and he seems to be a kindhearted, soft-spoken man when medicated.”
“We are not using anything I say as an excuse,” LoTempio told the judge, “But there is an explanation to how this developed.”
Rachel Newton, chief of the Erie County District Attorney’s Domestic Violence Bureau, downplayed what she called the “undocumented” and “unconfirmed” brain injury and said Gebreyesus displayed typical domestic-violence behavior.