The verbal exchange lasted only 45 seconds. Robert Coleman threw one punch.
Fedelia Montiel-Benitez died in a hospital 10 days later, and Coleman will now most likely go to prison for 10 years for second-degree murder.
He was found guilty at trial in Alexandria Circuit Court on Monday after arguing unsuccessfully that while he did punch Montiel-Benitez in a 7-Eleven last July, he had no intention of killing her.
Coleman, 27, told detectives Montiel-Benitez called him the n-word, and he snapped. Prosecutors claimed the 39-year-old woman did not speak enough English to use such a slur — and that even if she had, it did not justify Coleman’s response.
“Words alone” are no reason to kill, Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney David Lord said in closing arguments.
“We of course remain disappointed that they didn't see it as manslaughter,” Coleman’s attorney, Robert Jenkins, said after the jury returned. He said Coleman and his family were “grateful” for the jury’s recommended sentence, given that second-degree murder can carry a punishment of up to 40 years. It reflected, Jenkins said, “that this was not something that he wanted to happen, that he did not intend to take someone’s life.”
A judge will formally sentence Coleman on May 24, but deviations from jury recommendations are rare. He is being held at the Alexandria Detention Center.
“In an all-too-often repeated theme, a tragedy unfolded because of a defendant’s inability to tolerate a perceived slight,” Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter said in a statement. “Verbal arguments should never devolve into physical altercations because physical altercations often bring devastating consequences.”
Coleman and Montiel-Benitez were strangers. Coleman was buying cigarettes. Montiel-Benitez was buying alcohol at the convenience store near the Mark Center on Seminary Road.
The source of the animosity between them remains a mystery. Surveillance video shows they engaged in a brief conversation, but there is no audio. Coleman’s girlfriend, Nikki Howard, testified she could not hear the entire conversation but broke the two up. In the video, Montiel-Benitez is seen walking to the door and then turning.
Coleman says that is when she called him the n-word; Howard remembered her cursing. In the video Coleman can be seen chasing Montiel-Benitez outside.
Through the leaves of a tree, another camera captures the punch that put Montiel-Benitez in a coma from which she did not recover.
Coleman fled the scene and was picked up the next day when a detective recognized him in the surveillance video. He at first denied involvement in what he thought was simply an assault. When he was told Montiel-Benitez was in critical condition, he admitted hitting her, but said he had not meant to cause serious harm.
He also thought the heavyset woman with short hair was a man, he told detectives.
Lord argued the focus on Montiel-Benitez’s appearance at trial, as well as the high level of alcohol in her system, was disrespectful to the dead.
“She deserves to be treated with more humanity,” he told the jury.
He said Coleman was “a bully who was looking for a fight” and picked on Montiel-Benitez, who was just trying to get away.
Jenkins told jurors Montiel-Benitez’s .351 blood alcohol level and size might help explain why Coleman believed “this was going to be mutual combat, and he struck first.”