Hughes sentenced to 45 years in prison for shooting death of Joey Gingerella
Dante A. Hughes turned to the family of homicide victim Joey Gingerella and apologized Wednesday as he was sentenced in New London Superior Court to 45 years in prison for the Dec. 11, 2016, shooting in Groton.
"I know it was tragic. It was uncalled for. It was unnecessary. And I'm sorry," Hughes said.
The 32-year-old said the shooting in the parking lot of Ryan's Pub happened "so fast." He said he turned around and saw Gingerella behind him and "just fired."
Wearing a neon orange prison jumpsuit and leg irons, Hughes turned next to face Judge Barbara Bailey Jongbloed and asked her "not for leniency, but for what is due."
The lengthy prison sentence the judge imposed a few minutes later was as close as the victim's family would get to receiving "Justice for Joey."
The judge sentenced Hughes to 50 years in prison, suspended after 45 years served, followed by five years of probation for first-degree manslaughter with a firearm and criminal possession of a firearm.
"It's not going to bring my son back, but I'm as happy as I'm going to be," Tammy de la Cruz, mother of the victim, said in the courtroom hallway.
Hughes will be eligible to apply for parole after serving 85 percent of the sentence, or 38.25 years, but due to the nature of the crime, is not eligible to earn so-called "good time" credits under the Department of Correction's Risk Reduction Earned Credits program.
"Justice for Joey" had became a mantra, and a hashtag, for those who knew and loved the 24-year-old. Dozens turned out for the sentencing hearing wearing black T-shirts printed with the saying and with an image of a grinning Gingerella wearing his signature New York Yankees baseball cap and sprouting angel wings.
Tammy and husband Joe de la Cruz sat together at the prosecutors' table to deliver their victim impact statements. Both asked the judge to sentence Hughes to the maximum, which would have been 52 years in prison.
"Joey was loved by so many, which means so many lives have been tragically affected by his violent death," the mother said in her victim impact statement. "As his mother, I can only tell you that my life will never be the same. I have not managed to go a day without crying. I can't shut off my mind thinking about the last moments of his life."
Gingerella's sister, Kayla, sat on a courtroom bench cradling her infant son, named Joey after the uncle he would never meet.
Gingerella had struggled with an addiction to painkillers, so the de la Cruzes had founded Community Speaks Out, a nonprofit organization to bring the opioid crisis into the open and help other families who were struggling. Autopsy results showed that Gingerella was opioid-free at the time of his death.
Several members of Hughes' family had attended his trial, but only his father was at the sentencing hearing.
This past summer, a jury had convicted him of first-degree manslaughter with a firearm, and the judge found him guilty of criminal possession of a firearm. They found him not guilty of murder but also rejected his claim that he had shot Gingerella in self-defense.
The guilty verdicts were jeopardized days later, when court officials learned a juror had looked up the definition of manslaughter in a dictionary despite the judge's repeated instructions to use only the information they received in court. Hughes' attorney, Walter D. Hussey, had filed a motion for a mistrial based on the juror misconduct. The judge had called all of the jurors back to court and questioned them about whether the dictionary incident had affected their ability to follow the instructions she had provided.
The judge told those gathered for Wednesday's sentencing hearing that she was denying the motion for a new trial and would be following up with a written decision.
Senior Assistant State's Attorney Paul J. Narducci said there were many points that night at Ryan's Pub at which the crime could have been averted and even earlier, had Hughes not purchased a firearm. Hughes had testified at the trial that he bought the Glock 9 mm for $200 from a friend of his cousin and threw it into Niagara Falls as he was fleeing to Canada after the shooting.
"We can't have our society be governed by rogue actions," Narducci said. "We can't have people making decisions based on anger, based on the heat of the moment and based on the accessibility of firearms."
Hughes' attorney, Hussey, said the case always had looked like a manslaughter, not murder, to him.
"I think you can punish this man sufficiently but you can never bring back Joey," he said.
Judge Jongbloed said that in crafting a just and reasonable sentence, she was taking into account Hughes' history and the facts of the case, and considering the goals of enhancing public safety and holding the defendant accountable. She said that in shooting someone who was unarmed and who had intervened to help, Hughes acted with a horrific disregard for human life.
The judge told Gingerella's family she knows no sentence she could impose would undo what has happened.
"This was a horrendous violent incident, an unspeakable tragedy that ended the life of a young man and altered his family's lives," she said.