At face value, a life sentence for shoplifting from Walmart seems asinine. But it happened. And the facts of the case may make it seem slightly more serious than Walmart’s typical shopliftings but still an odd case and a highly questionable sentence.
Thirty-eight year old William Alan Kennedy was reportedly trying to leave a Tarrant County Walmart with a stolen television, worth $348. On his way out he knocked down 56-year old Bruce Florence. Florence bumped his head on the floor and was hospitalized. Nine days later, Florence died.
Even though the medical examiner ruled the cause of death to be end-stage liver cirrhosis and not a head injury, Kennedy was charged with aggravated robbery (theft where an injury is involved) and sentenced to the maximum possible penalty by State District Judge Mike Thomas.
Not surprisingly, prosecutor Nelda Cacciotti saw the case and ultimately the life sentence as a victory. “After conscientious deliberations, the jury agreed that Kennedy’s actions were a serious threat to Bruce Florence,” she said. “We hope that all shoplifters get the message that store thefts may have long-term consequences for the victim and the defendant.
Even Florence’s widow was surprised by the sentence, stating her heart went out to Kennedy’s parents, though she added she would now be able to sleep better at night.
While Kennedy did have a criminal history, a life sentence for such an offense seems very extreme. Had he stepped to the side while leaving the store, and spared Florence the fall, he would have faced Class B misdemeanor charges, punishable by less than 180 days in jail. But because someone was injured in the commission of the theft, what would have been a basic shoplifting charge became a felony robbery charge.
The sentence, sought by the prosecution, was ultimately in Judge Thomas’ hands. He could have sentenced Kennedy at the lower end of the range, but determined that sentencing him to life would be in the best interest of public safety.
How he came to this conclusion, given no violent criminal history in Kennedy’s past, was anyone’s guess. Perhaps Thomas simply didn’t want to see Kennedy come before him with another shoplifting charge or he thought Kennedy wasn’t capable of walking around without bumping into people and ultimately causing their death.
There’s no doubt that the death of Mr. Florence in this case was tragic. But even the medical examiner says it wasn’t caused by the trauma to his head experienced by the fall. If it had been, Kennedy may have faced a murder charge, though his maximum sentence would have still been life in prison.
Harsh and seemingly irrational sentences are not the norm, but this story is evidence that they do occur. If you are facing criminal charges and are concerned about your potential penalties, contact our offices today to discuss your case.