Lafayette teen sentenced to life in prison in 2013 shooting death

A Lafayette teen was sentenced to life in prison Tuesday after he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in the 2013 shooting death of a Pineville woman.

Judge Glennon Everett sentenced Damari Jennings, 16, to life in prison, which is the penalty in Louisiana for conviction of second-degree murder. Because Jennings is under the age of 18, he is eligible for a hearing to determine whether he should serve the sentence without parole.

Jennings was 15 when, authorities say, he shot and killed Connie Burch, a 51-year-old woman from Pineville. Lafayette police found Burch’s body on a sidewalk near a coulee bridge in the 1100 block of Madeline Street at 1:15 a.m. on Aug. 15, 2013.

Jennings in September 2013 was indicted on one count of first-degree murder.

On Tuesday, he pleaded guilty to the reduced charge of one count of second-degree murder — a result of a plea bargain.

Then, standing before Everett, Jennings couldn’t bring himself to fully admit guilt.

“Tell me what you did,” Everett said, a judge’s standard request of defendants who plead guilty to felonies.

“I was accused of shooting two people,” Jennings said.

“Did you kill someone?” Everett asked.

“No sir,” Jennings said. “They found evidence. I still didn’t do it, but they found evidence.”

Randall McCann, Jennings’ attorney, told Everett that Jennings was making an Alford plea, or a “best interest” plea, which Everett accepted.

An Alford plea is a guilty plea without admitting guilt, which is used in Louisiana and other, but not all, states.

In the case’s early months, prosecutor Roger Hamilton notified Everett that the Lafayette Parish District Attorney’s Office would not seek the death penalty in the first-degree murder charge, according to court documents, in which Hamilton cited Jennings’ age.

In Louisiana, a second-degree murder conviction carries an automatic sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole unless the defendant was 17 or younger at the time of the death. The age clause is a recent change enacted after the U.S. Supreme Court — in the case Miller v. Alabama — ruled that automatic life sentences for youths without at least a chance of parole are unconstitutional.

Everett said Jennings could take part in a “Miller hearing,” which could address mitigating circumstances that, one day, could lead to parole.

Lafayette police last year also accused Jennings of shooting and wounding a 27-year-old man on a bicycle Aug. 8, 2013, one week before Burch was killed. That shooting occurred near the intersection of Landry Street and University Avenue.

Jennings was charged in that shooting also, with a grand jury on Sept. 19, 2013, handing up an indictment on one count of attempted second-degree murder.

Jennings on Tuesday pleaded to a lesser charge of aggravated battery.

“We had sufficient evidence that he was the shooter in both cases,” said Hamilton, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Jennings.