The portraits painted by the family and friends of the victim and defendant were those of loving, caring, generous men.
But Zachary Sheridan sucker punched and beat a man before throwing a punch at a young woman, too.
And Isiah Smith fatally shot Sheridan in the back as he ran away.
At Smith’s sentencing Wednesday on one count of voluntary manslaughter, Sheridan’s family asked for the maximum possible penalty of 10 to 20 years in prison. Smith’s asked for less.
Common Pleas Judge Jeffrey A. Manning, who heard the case in a bench trial in April, struck a compromise.
“Justice may lie somewhere in the middle,” he said. “Or not.”
He ordered Smith, 23, of Lincoln-Lemington to spend five to 15 years in prison.
In pronouncing his sentence, Judge Manning noted a friend of Smith’s family said it best when she testified: “Why didn’t you just walk away? Why didn’t everybody just walk away?”
Smith was inside the Original Hot Dog Shop on Forbes Avenue about 3:20 a.m. Aug. 3 when a friend arrived to borrow money from him. The friend testified that one of Sheridan’s friends, Nicholas Rotunda, approached her while she was still outside and asked if she was a jitney. Even though she said she was not, Mr. Rotunda offered her money to take him and his friends to the South Side.
When the woman refused, she claimed they harassed her. The woman went into the restaurant to get Smith and asked him to escort her back to her car.
Mr. Rotunda, Sheridan and another man with them confronted Smith’s group as they left, and Smith testified that he tried to talk to Mr. Rotunda. When that was unsuccessful, Smith said he took out his gun to bluff the men into backing down, but the deception didn’t work.
Instead, Mr. Rotunda kept repeating “Shoot me,” and Smith put the gun away and instead pushed him.
Within seconds, Sheridan punched Smith and knocked him to the ground, and Mr. Rotunda joined in. While Sheridan continued to punch him, Mr. Rotunda ran across the street to fight one of Smith’s friends.
The entire altercation was captured on video surveillance cameras in the area.
As Smith got up from the ground, he saw Sheridan punch a young woman who was with him and then reach on the ground for something. Smith testified he thought Sheridan was reaching for a gun, and as Sheridan ran across the street, Smith pulled out his weapon and fired it once.
The bullet struck Sheridan in the back.
At the emotional sentencing hearing, several people spoke on Sheridan’s behalf.
They described him as an avid athlete who loved life and family, who would help carry his bedridden grandmother and sleep next to her at night in the event she might need something.
Sheridan’s best friend, Bo Hodgkiss, said the two met when they played for Brookline’s baseball league for 9- and 10-year-olds and became inseparable. His friend taught him to be loyal, kind, tough, brave and competitive, Mr. Hodgkiss said. He recalled they once came across homeless people near PNC Park in the fall, and Sheridan went home that night, collected blankets and returned to pass them out.
“Zach and I always knew what was right and what was wrong. Zach never deviated off the path he set for himself,” Mr. Hodgkiss said. “His path was always simple and straight.”
The witnesses described Sheridan, who attended Slippery Rock University on a football scholarship, as charismatic and a great leader.
“Zach was the guy everyone wanted to be around,” said his longtime friend Maeve Gallagher.
Like several others, she talked about the bear hugs he gave and his love of his family.
“I can’t wrap my head around the struggle they wake up to everyday.”
Among those who testified was Robert Berberich, Sheridan’s cousin and a Pittsburgh police officer.
He told Judge Manning he spotted his cousin that night while on patrol, and when he circled back around the block to say hello, Sheridan was already gone.
Hours later, Officer Berberich responded to Oakland for a report of shots fired.
“I realized the man lying on the sidewalk in the rain, covered in blood was Zach,” he said. “That is an image I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.
“We all have our own life sentences because of Isiah Smith’s actions.”
Assistant district attorney Robert Schupansky submitted 90 letters about the impact of Sheridan’s death.
“If Mr. Smith would have extended his hand and not his gun, he would have made a friend for life,” said Mary Walsh, who is best friends with Sheridan’s mother.
Defense attorney Aaron Sontz said his client tried to do that.
“He did, in fact, offer his hand ... which was slapped away by Nick Rotunda,” he said.
Mr. Sontz noted for the court what he considered to be numerous mitigating factors that weighed in favor of a lesser sentence.
“Zachary Sheridan threw the first punch, and he threw it at a person who wasn’t looking at him,” he said. “Zachary Sheridan’s intent was not necessarily to protect his friends. This was an aggressive posture.”
Mr. Sontz said the fight that ensued was 2-on-1 and that it continued even after Smith was down. He also noted his client had no criminal record, was licensed to carry the firearm he had that night, had a good academic record and good work history.
Smith’s mother, Christine Weeden-Holland, told the court her son is neither a criminal nor a danger to society. She also addressed Sheridan’s supporters.
“I want the family to know we love them. We’re sorry,” she said. “It could have been mine.”
Mr. Sontz reiterated that point.
“Had that bullet missed, I could very easily be here defending Zachary Sheridan for aggravated assault.”
Paula Reed Ward: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2620.
First Published July 2, 2014 2:25 PM