Murder or misdemeanor? ‘One-punch’ death involving Wake coach leaves Raleigh mom seeking answers

Wake Forest basketball assistant charged in deadly assault on NYC tourist

Wake Forest basketball assistant coach Jamill Jones has been arrested and charged with third-degree assault for the delivering a lethal punch to a New York City tourist.
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Wake Forest basketball assistant coach Jamill Jones has been arrested and charged with third-degree assault for the delivering a lethal punch to a New York City tourist.

For weeks, Donna Kent had been “googling endlessly,” she said, seeking answers to the questions that had been running through her mind since the death of her oldest son.

She considered him to be a victim of murder. The district attorney, though, was treating the case like a misdemeanor, and so Kent spent much of her time researching victims’ rights and the ethical responsibilities of prosecutors.

She sought insight into how one-punch deaths are prosecuted, and she tried to learn how to classify, in a legal sense, the act of landing a single punch that directly leads to a person’s death.

Then one night not long ago, Kent said she felt a sudden jolt, the sensation of “feeling a need.” All that research and she realized there was something else she didn’t know, fundamental to her grief.

“I don’t even know where he died,” she said.

In a literal sense, at least, Kent had been by her son’s side when he was pronounced dead on Aug. 7 at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. She’d made the eight-hour drive to be there from her Raleigh home as soon as she’d received the phone call. In a figurative sense, though, Sandor Szabo’s life (his Hungarian first name was pronounced Shahn-door) ended two days earlier, on a Long Island City street in the early-morning hours of Aug. 5.

The basic facts surrounding his death were not in dispute. Kent, the New York City Police Department and the Queens County District Attorney’s office agreed on those. The simple version of the story went like this: Szabo, a 35-year-old Boca Raton, Fla., resident who graduated from Raleigh’s Millbrook High in 2000, had traveled to New York for his step-sister’s wedding, which was on Aug. 4.

The night of the wedding, Szabo consumed alcohol, enough that Kent didn’t argue with the conclusion that he had been drunk. Szabo left a post-wedding gathering at a Long Island City hotel sometime after midnight on Aug. 5. Around 1:15 a.m., Szabo, now a few blocks from the hotel he’d just left, encountered a white BMW SUV and approached it.

A confrontation ensued with the driver, a 35-year-old man named Jamill Jones, an assistant basketball coach at Wake Forest University. Jones, according to police, approached Szabo and punched him in the face. Szabo’s head struck the pavement. He lost consciousness, never to regain it. After throwing the punch, Jones drove away, police said. The medical examiner ruled Szabo’s death a homicide.

Those were the facts, stripped of the details surrounding them, and yet it was in those details where Kent and the prosecutors in the Queens County District Attorney’s office diverged. To Kent, what happened to her son constituted murder, even if she could accept that Jones didn’t necessarily mean to kill Szabo with a single blow to the head.

To the district attorneys, though, Jones’ alleged actions didn’t rise to the level of murder, or manslaughter, or even criminally negligent homicide, which in New York is a Class E felony, and part of the lowest level of felony crimes in the state. Instead, prosecutors charged Jones with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor.

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In this Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, photo, Jamill Jones, left, appears in Queens Criminal Court in New York. The parents of a Florida man who died after he was punched by Jones, an assistant basketball coach at Wake Forest University, said Friday they don’t accept the coach’s condolences. Barry Williams AP

Why not a murder charge?

For the past four months, Kent and her family have been trying to understand why. They have found it unacceptable that the man implicated in Szabo’s death has been charged with such a low-level crime. Absent a more serious charge it is possible, and perhaps even likely, that Jones will not serve any time in jail if he is found guilty – or pleads guilty – to third degree assault. To Kent, that is unfathomable.

“This has been something that you just never obviously prepare (for),” she said during a recent interview. “You just don’t think America is like this. And it just really puts such a shadow over your belief in our system. I won’t even mention the word justice. I can’t even call it a justice system.”

Kent traveled to New York in early December. She arrived with a full schedule: a visit on Monday to the site where her son had been punched; a meeting on Tuesday with the Queens County District Attorney, with whom Kent had found immense dissatisfaction; and, on Wednesday, a court hearing where Jones was due to appear. Kent wanted to be there, to see Jones for the first time.

When Kent recounted in court the details about how her son died, she was sure to mention how much damage the punch inflicted. She said one surgeon told her Szabo had suffered “a devastating brain injury.”

The violent details made it all the more difficult for her to accept that Jones had been charged with a misdemeanor. That was the primary point of contention during her Sept. 7 meeting with prosecutors. Kent attended it with her attorneys; her husband Robert; and her youngest son, Dominik, who was Szabo’s roommate in Boca Raton. To Szabo’s family, it was a clear enough case: A man punched him in the head, which caused him to fall, which led to his death. How was it not a serious crime?

During that September meeting, though, Kent said the prosecutors attempted to justify the third degree assault charge. She said they questioned everything about her son: Szabo’s level of intoxication; whether he’d been waiting for a taxi; whether he’d been acting aggressively in the moments before he was punched; whether he’d broken the rear window of Jones’ vehicle. Kent said prosecutors showed her a photo of the broken window, suggesting Szabo did it.

Kent said that in the days after her son died the prosecution settled on a story to explain the events that led to his death. Douglas Curran, one of the attorneys Kent hired, described it like this, paraphrasing the district attorney’s narrative: “He was drunk and was causing trouble. And then he got punched. And it’s too bad that he died, but you can kind of see why that happened.”

The prosecutors, Kent said, told her that New York law precluded them from charging Jones with anything more serious than misdemeanor assault, given the circumstances surrounding Szabo’s death. To which Kent replied: “This is a crazy law.” The more she tried to argue, she said, the more the DAs dug in. At one point, Kent said, a prosecutor told her “there’s no way we would win” if the state charged the case as a criminally negligent homicide.

“And then I realized this was all about winning,” she said.

Kent didn’t necessarily want to win just any criminal case. What she wanted most was the justice she sought, and she was willing to fight. It was part of the reason why she’d hired and fired one set of attorneys before hiring another – so that she might receive guidance through a legal system that was turning out to be more complicated than she ever imagined.

The legal gray area

New York is not alone in how it handles cases in which a person dies after a punch. Everywhere, such cases often fall into a legal gray area — one that can leave the families of victims feeling “re-victimized,” as Kent says she’s felt since her son’s death.

A review of recent cases with similarities to the Szabo-Jones case, shows the variance in how prosecutors charge defendants whose punches were alleged to have led to a person’s death. Those cases, all of which originated between 2012 and 2017, resulted in charges ranging from murder to involuntary manslaughter.

Four of the cases included confrontations either in or directly outside of bars. Another happened amid a gathering of teenagers who reportedly were partying in a secluded area in Clinton County, Illinois.

In that case a juvenile defendant, who wasn’t named publicly, received probation after he punched an 18-year-old man once in the head. The victim later died. In a one-punch case during a bar fight in Lake Township, Ohio, a defendant was charged with reckless homicide, a felony, and sentenced to three years in prison.

In another one-punch case a 27-year-old man, Ryan Flannigan, died after a single punch to his head during a July 2014 confrontation outside of a bar in suburban Chicago. Prosecutors charged the defendant, Michael Platt, with first-degree murder. A jury found him not guilty in the criminal trial but another jury, in a civil trial, held Platt responsible for Flannigan’s death.

New York, meanwhile, owned its own complicated history of one-punch killings. One of those cases inspired Jeff Klein, a democratic state senator who represents Bronx and Westchester Counties, to sponsor a law that would create a new felony charge for what his office described as “aggravated assault that leads to serious injury or death.”

Klein’s proposal became known as “Ildefonso Romero, Jr.’s Law,” named after a man who died in 2014 after attempting to stop a fight in front of his home in the Bronx. Kent visited with members of the Romero family during her recent trip. Romero, a father of five who’d been married for nearly 34 years, died after he sustained a single punch to his head. Prosecutors charged the perpetrator, a 17-year-old, with misdemeanor assault. He served five months in jail.

The Romero law passed the New York senate in 2017. Klein’s office released a celebratory statement.

“(W)hen a perpetrator uses his fist as a weapon to cause serious injury or death there will be a serious price to pay,” Klein said in that statement. “No family should ever go through the grief of losing a loved one and then watch his killer get a slap on the wrist. This legislation would finally close a glaring loophole in the penal code.”

The key word was “would.” Though the senate passed Ildefonso Romero, Jr.’s Law, it stalled in the assembly. The proposal did not become law. About 14 months after Klein spoke of closing “a glaring loophole in the penal code,” Szabo died in a New York City hospital. Amid the loss of a son and brother, Szabo’s family hoped to gain what it considered to be justice.

“I don’t think somebody who kills somebody,” Kent said, “can just (say), ‘Oh well, sorry. I didn’t mean to do it.’”

Jones’ intent, though, was only part of the equation the prosecutors used to decide what charge to levy. Other factors included Szabo’s behavior before the confrontation and Jones’ motivation for exiting his vehicle, approaching Szabo and punching him in the head, as police alleged he’d done.

The night of the punch

Kent didn’t dispute that her son had been drinking, and was intoxicated. But in her version of events, Szabo had been waiting peacefully for a ride for 20 minutes before Jones, who was in his second year as an assistant basketball coach at Wake Forest, pulled up. Kent said the DA’s office showed her family a surveillance video, taken from a nearby convenience store, that showed Szabo standing near a street corner, presumably waiting for his ride.

In the video, Kent said, her son didn’t appear to be disorderly. When Jones arrived, Kent said, Szabo motioned toward the vehicle and began to approach it. She said parts of the footage were undecipherable when light blinded the camera. Moments later, she said, the video showed Jones leaving his vehicle and approaching Szabo. The punch wasn’t visible, Kent said, but the immediate aftermath was: Szabo laying on the sidewalk, his legs moving.

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Sandor Szabo and a Carolina Hurricanes hockey game. Courtesy of the family

Jones has been placed on administrative leave at Wake Forest. He has not coached this season. His Queens-based attorney, Christopher Renfroe, did not return a call to his office.

Prosecutors charged Jones with misdemeanor assault not long after he turned himself in. Curran, one of Kent’s lawyers, has argued that Jones should be charged with criminally negligent homicide, which would carry a maximum prison sentence of four years. To make his argument, Curran in written communication with the DA’s office has cited other one-punch death cases in New York state that prosecutors charged as felonies.

“In the longer term ... what we’re going to try to do is work with Donna to make some positive change here under New York law,” Curran said. “So that if this happens again, and it’s sure to happen again, there won’t be other families who are told by the DA’s office that I know that your loved one was intentionally and purposefully and aggressively attacked and died as a result but, nevertheless, the most we can do is third-degree assault.”

In a brief phone interview, Jack Ryan, the executive assistant district attorney, said he had the “utmost sympathy” for Szabo’s family.

“These are difficult cases,” Ryan said. “Our colleagues in Manhattan recently went to trial in the last two months in a one-punch case, and the jury acquitted ...

All we can do is do our best under the law, and we certainly have the greatest sympathy for the family.”

In a statement, Curran said, “The prosecutors seemed open to raising the charge against Jones to criminally negligent homicide, as other New York DAs have done in similar circumstances. We’re cautiously optimistic that the new prosecution team will call this crime what it is – homicide – and will work to pursue real justice for Sandor.

‘The only positive thing’

The legal questions surrounding her son’s death have consumed Kent, since the day after Szabo was removed from life support, after doctors harvested six of his organs that saved the lives of four people.

“There are no good outcomes except for that,” Kent said of the organ donations. Her son’s heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and pancreas had saved lives. “The only positive I can see in this whole thing.”

Kent and her family, along with some of Szabo’s friends, filled his hospital room in his final days. In the hospital her son was “so hooked up to everything,” to different machines, but she said he looked peaceful – “so beautiful.”

“We had country Western music playing for him,” she said, “and you just hope that there’s going to be a miracle.”

His funeral was on Aug. 18 in Boynton Beach, Fla. It was exactly two weeks after the wedding that took him to New York. His mom wanted to think about the things that made her son’s life one worth celebrating – she called him “my poet,” and she missed the daily calls at night and in the morning – but now, when she closed her eyes at night she said “It’s impossible for me to think that.”

“All I think about is Jones getting out of the car and how afraid Sandor must have been.”

Kent arrived in New York on a Monday morning. When she left the airport she traveled first to 41-10 29th St. in Long Island City, where paramedics found Szabo after he’d been punched. She needed to see where her son had last been conscious – where, in her mind, he’d been murdered.

Andrew Carter spent 10 years covering major college athletics, six of them covering the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer. Now he’s a member of The N&O’s and Observer’s statewide enterprise and investigative reporting team. He attended N.C. State and grew up in Raleigh dreaming of becoming a journalist.