The family of a Bronx hospital worker who died after a teenager sucker-punched him was dismayed Wednesday when the judge sentenced the assailant to five months in prison on a misdemeanor charge.
Although the family wished to press for a manslaughter conviction, current law does not allow for criminal charges when death is caused by a single punch. Elijah Burt, 17, pled guilty last June to assault and harassment misdemeanor charges.
The incident occurred on June 21, 2014 at the corner of Thieriot Avenue and Lafayette Avenue in the Soundview section of the Bronx when Ildefonso Romero Jr., 59, tried to break up a fight among teenagers outside his home. The father of five fell to the ground and remained unresponsive after Burt punched him with a closed fist directly in the face. Romero Jr. was pronounced dead two days later.
The victim’s daughter, Jennifer Perez, a 30-year old accountant, read a tribute to her father at the sentencing on October 1 at the Bronx Supreme Court. Perez told the judge and both families present that her father, who worked as an institutional aide at Lincoln Hospital for many years, was a “hardworking man that did everything to provide for his family.” She spoke of the pain her family has endured over his loss. “The simple opportunity to say, ‘I love you’ is forever gone,” she said.
Addressing Burt directly, she asked, “How much compassion did you have when you decided to put your hands on my father?” Her voice rose as she said, “You may say it wasn’t your intention to end my father’s life, but the intent was there as soon as you chose to viciously hit him.”
The defense attorney argued that Burt had no criminal record and his action was “an aberration.” The attorney’s office said it will continue to work with Burt to “ensure the situation never reoccurs.”
The defense attorney and Burt’s family members who sat behind the teen during the sentencing, declined to comment.
Although Judge William McGuire acknowledged that the charge would not satisfy the family, he sentenced Burt to jail for three weeks shorter than the six-month maximum for his misdemeanor conviction. McGuire claimed the three weeks would place a higher burden on the jail than it would benefit Burt.
The Romero family has not yet decided if it would press for an appeal, but members are working with Assemblyman Luis Sepulveda and Senator Jeffrey Klein to push for harsher punishments in the future for similar one-punch deaths. Sepulveda arrived immediately after the hearing and said that he and Klein would “see how we can allow a bill to increase penalties,” to elevate the charge from misdemeanor to “negligent homicide.”
Community Board Nine chairman William Rivera commiserated with the family and expressed concern at the weak penalties for such serious crimes. He believes “there is an underlying problem” in his community that has enabled high crime rates among teenagers. The youth “get locked up, arrested, and then released.”