Jamie R. Galarza’s courtroom apology may mean more to Lateefa Johnson someday.
But on Tuesday, Johnson couldn’t forgive Galarza for fatally stabbing her son, Devonte, on Oct. 12.
“There are some days I am just not able to get out of bed. My heart aches, and you caused that,” said Johnson, reading from a handwritten letter during Galarza’s sentencing in State Supreme Court. “I pray one day I will be able to forgive you. Today is not it.”
Through tears, Johnson urged Justice Russell P. Buscaglia to sentence Galarza, 26, to the maximum prison term for his manslaughter conviction. A jury in May found Galarza guilty of manslaughter for fatally stabbing Devonte Johnson, 21, in a street fight on Euclid Place.
Buscaglia did just that, ordering Galarza to spend 25 years in prison.
Galarza apologized to Johnson and asked for her forgiveness prior to the judge’s ruling. He received permission from Buscaglia to turn and speak directly to Lateefa Johnson, who was sitting a few feet away.
“I just ask by the graces of God that sometime you could forgive me for what I’ve done and for the pain and sorrow I’ve caused you and your family,” Galarza said. “I’m truly sorry.”
After a weeklong trial, a jury acquitted the Buffalo man of second-degree murder but convicted him of first-degree manslaughter in the fatal stabbing.
Assistant District Attorney Colleen Curtin Gable, who prosecuted the case, told Buscaglia that Galarza was lucky to have escaped with a lesser conviction, given that he left the scene of the fight and returned shortly after with a knife.
“This defendant is fortunate to have been convicted of manslaughter and not murder,” Curtin Gable said.
Defense attorney Jeremy D. Schwartz said Galarza was not known for being violent and described the fight and Johnson’s death as “a true tragedy all the way around.”
Despite “inflamed emotions” that day on Euclid Place, Galarza was not looking for a fight and at one point was “ushering people away” from hostilities, Schwartz said.
“This shouldn’t have happened,” Schwartz said. “It’s not a fight Jamie wanted to get involved with. He had no beef with Devonte.”
Galarza never intended on pulling out the knife, a small Swiss-army style knife that he sometimes used at work, Schwartz said.
“He never intended on confronting Devonte at all,” Schwartz said. “It’s a situation where there were inflamed tensions which I think Jamie underestimated.”
Lateefa Johnson said after the sentencing that she read some reports on Galarza that suggested he was not necessarily a trouble maker and made it “seem like really he was kind of a good person.”
But she still couldn’t understand why Galarza would leave Euclid Place and return a short while later without intending to do harm.
“You can’t fight at 7 o’clock and then come back at 7:30 with a weapon,” she said.
Witnesses testified at trial that Johnson did not have a weapon.
Galarza told police that Johnson had punched him several times before he stabbed him three times.
The tensions on the street escalated from an argument earlier between Galarza and Galarza’s former girlfriend, who lives on Euclid Place.
During that argument, Johnson apparently intervened to get Galarza to leave, according to trial testimony.
Johnson, a graduate of South Park High School, was working for FedEx, said his mother.
He was the oldest of her three children, and his death makes her feel as if she’s lost the other two, as well, because they’ve been damaged so much by the loss.
“They’ve mentally and emotionally checked out,” she said.
Lateefa Johnson said she was grateful for the maximum sentence.
Galarza’s apology didn’t mean anything to her – at least not yet, she said.
“I know it should, but today it doesn’t,” she said. “Eventually it will.”