Dontre Jones is standing trial for fatally shooting Ira Watkins Jr. at a busy park in Cheektowaga two years ago.
Now, the question revolves around intent, and whether the shooting death in Town Park was a stupid, reckless act done by Jones for fear of reprisal from a brewing dispute.
“This was purely a reckless act committed by an immature kid confronted with a volatile situation,” said defense attorney Andrew C. LoTempio.
Or was it simply a bold shooting that took the life of Watkins, 19, an Erie Community College student and Taco Bell manager who was caught in the gunfire?
“This isn’t reckless. It’s certainly not justified,” said Assistant District Attorney Patrick B. Shanahan. “It’s cold-blooded murder.”
Attorneys in the Town Park-shooting case gave their closing arguments on Friday, after a three-day nonjury trial before Erie County Judge Michael Pietruszka.
The judge reserved decision on Friday and is scheduled to render a verdict on Tuesday.
The case has received a lot of attention in the Cheektowaga community, where many children and families go to Town Park for picnics, festivals and recreation. The shooting, in fact, led to town meetings, as well as police upgrades in park safety and surveillance.
The incident happened the evening of May 31, 2011, when there were as many as 75 people in the park on Harlem Road, drawn there for a water fight promoted via social media, according to prosecutors.
The shooting actually stemmed from an argument earlier in the day, which involved neither Jones nor Watkins, but was connected to rival gangs from Humason Avenue and Guilford Street, prosecutors said. Three of those involved with the Guilford crew – including one in the verbal dispute – left the park and returned with four others – including Watkins, LoTempio said.
As Watkins and the others approached the parking lot near the basketball courts, the gunman fired five shots, with one of the bullets striking Watkins square in the chest, said Shanahan, who is prosecuting the case with James F. Bargnesi, head of the DA’s Homicide Bureau.
Jones, who was 18 at the time of the shooting, has been in custody since an Erie County grand jury indicted him in February 2012 on charges of second-degree murder and second-degree criminal possession of a weapon. He faces a maximum prison sentence of 25 years to life.
His attorney, however, argued Friday for a lesser charge of second-degree manslaughter, which carries a maximum of five to 15 years behind bars.
Jones didn’t bring the gun to the park, so he wasn’t looking for trouble, LoTempio argued. Jones didn’t know the victim, so he had no motive. And as Watkins and the group approached, Jones was scared and felt cornered, his attorney said.
“Nothing has been proven that this was premeditated or my client had a motive to do this,” LoTempio said.
“As far as intent to injure or intent to kill here, I think it would be a very huge leap for the court to infer that,” LoTempio said.
Shanahan argued that Jones was just 45 feet away – roughly the length of six parking spaces – when he leveled the .38-caliber revolver and fired five shots one after another into the crowd.
“It doesn’t matter who bought it, who brought it or who handed it to whom,” Shanahan said of the gun.
When he needed it, Jones made sure had a gun to take care of “those outsiders,” Shanahan said. “That’s what happened here, judge,” Shanahan said. “There’s no getting around intent to kill somebody and because only one person was hit doesn’t diminish intent. … The decision to pull the trigger and shoot it at a human being is an intentional act,” he added.
LoTempio objected several times during Shanahan’s closing argument. At one point, LoTempio asked for a mistrial, because Shanahan read statements of eyewitnesses who weren’t called to testify.
Pietruszka said he would disregard those statements and denied LoTempio’s request for a mistrial.