A 20-year-old man was sentenced to nearly six years in prison for manslaughter after an emotional appearance in court Wednesday that ended with family members yelling and swearing in the hallway of the Spokane County Superior Court.
Brandon Pierce pleaded guilty to manslaughter last month, stemming from a August 2017 Airway Heights brawl between himself, multiple others and a man who died in the fight, 55-year-old Terry Toner. Pierce and others killed Toner – who the Spokane medical examiner said was legally drunk at the time – with his own baseball bat, which he initially used to hit others the night he was killed.
Prosecuting attorneys requested that Judge Moreno sentence Pierce to 138 months, mainly because of his criminal history of three adult felony convictions and two juvenile felony convictions.
The anticipation of Wednesday’s sentencing struck a chord of suspected racial bias in the community because Pierce’s co-defendant, Christian J. Palmer, was sentenced to 24 months in prison for the same crime; both of them attacked Toner the night he died. But Palmer, who is white, had no criminal history before this conviction.
“Pierce doesn’t come to court on equal footing,” Moreno said. “Palmer didn’t have criminal history.”
A brief cellphone video of the Airways Heights brawl provided evidence of Palmer and Pierce both hitting Toner, who ended up on the ground while being hit with the bat and kicked. Pierce is shown hitting Toner in the abdomen, and shouting that he’s going to kill Toner.
“The video was chilling,” Moreno said. “As much as I try to parse this out, I can’t tell who did what. It was a melee. It was chaos.”
Joe Kuhlman, Pierce’s defense attorney, asked the judge to give Pierce a four-year sentence, but after the ruling said he thought that the sentence was fair and that he respected Judge Moreno’s decision.
“That’s the best situation that I think would have happened,” he said.
The victim’s daughter, Carolyn Toner, gave a tearful statement to the judge, in which she asked for the sentence to be longer than two years.
“It is still difficult to think about (Terry) without breaking down,” she said. “They didn’t just kill a husband and father. They killed a big piece of who I was.”
Pierce’s father, Brandon Pierce Sr., said to Judge Moreno, “I hope you have mercy on him.”
Pierce read a statement of apology, but in an unusual action, went to the witness stand so he could face the family of the victim while he read it.
“I wish I could bring him back,” Pierce said, breaking into tears. “I frequently lay awake thinking about Mr. Toner. This will affect me for the rest of my life.”
“I can see extreme remorse in Mr. Pierce,” Moreno said.
Kurt Robinson, president of the Spokane branch of the NAACP, said he attended the sentencing to uphold justice that’s often lacking when black men are sentenced.
“Men of color are constantly disproportionately sentenced to more time,” he said. “There is a challenge of constantly rectifying that. The NAACP is seriously concerned about that, especially as the facts came out about this case.”
Brandon Pierce Sr. said he thought race had to do with sentencing his son to more prison time than Palmer, even though the two committed the same crime: “If that’s not bias and racial discrimination, then what is?”
Pierce Sr. and the victim’s daughter left before the court session was over, but loud shouts could be heard from the hallway, and court officers, friends and family had to separate the two.
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