A homicide victim’s family’s plea for leniency was a primary reason a Lilburn man escaped a murder trial and instead got probation, the top prosecutor in Gwinnett County said Monday.
Phillip Sailors, 70, got one year probation and a $500 fine in a plea agreement Monday in a case that has raised questions about fairness in the handling of the arrest and prosecution of Sailors.
Sailors killed 22-year-old Rodrigo Diaz when Diaz drove up to his house on the night of Jan. 26, 2013 after Diaz’s GPS took his vehicle to the wrong address. Diaz and three friends were looking for a friend to take ice skating. Sailors mistook the group for criminals, went outside and confronted them and fired a warning shot before fatally shooting Diaz as he tried to drive away, said his lawyer Mike Puglise.
From the beginning, the handling of the case seemed to play to Sailors’ defense. Lilburn police arrested the passengers in Diaz’s car, handcuffing and putting them in a cell overnight despite that they had not committed a crime. Sailors, on the other hand, wasn’t put in a cell or handcuffed, lawyers said.
Puglise said he would have used the police handling of the investigation to help prove Sailors’ fear of a home invasion that night was not unreasonable despite the innocence of Diaz, a Gwinnett Tech student who held a job at a shipping company.
“His father was most concerned that his son’s reputation was protected,” Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution of the family which immigrated from Columbia. “He didn’t even want it hinted at that his son was doing something wrong.”
Porter said Monday the case was either a murder or misdemeanor involuntary manslaughter. But while he said ballistic evidence did not support Sailors’ version that he shot Diaz because he feared the car was trying to run him over, the then-69-year-old man was a sympathetic defendant because he didn’t even have a record of traffic violation, Porter said.
More important was that the Diaz family, which reached an undisclosed settlement with Sailors’ insurance company in September, advocated for Sailors’ freedom, Porter said. Sailors supported the Diaz’s lawsuit against him, admitting over and over to causing the son’s wrongful death through “negligence,” a characteristic of manslaughter, not murder.
Last Friday, Puglise said he and Porter sealed the plea agreement that Sailors would plead guilty to involuntary manslaughter rather than face a murder charge.
Puglise described his client as distraught over the death, but on Monday, Sailors didn’t address the court to apologize to it or to the Diaz family for his actions.
“Mr. Sailors is still in shock, I know it is hard to believe,” said Puglise in explaining his client’s silence at sentencing. “Mr. Sailors wants the community to know that his actions were out of fear. Not out of vengeance, not out of hate, just fear.”
The Diaz family said it didn’t expect an apology from Sailors.
“If he did what he did, I don’t think he’s going to be the type of guy who apologizes, so I wasn’t expecting anything from him,” the victim’s brother David Diaz told Channel 2 Action News. “There is no point for him to be in lifetime in prison. What we get from that? Nothing.
“Like my dad said, we don’t hold any grudge.”
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