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Frank Puga Benavidez bowed his head in 3rd District Court on Friday, ready to apologize to the family of a 7-year-old girl fatally shot outside her Salt Lake City home almost two years ago.
"I'm very sorry for what happened," Benavidez, 22, told the court and the family of Maria del Carmen Menchaca, who was killed July 6, 2008 when she became the unintended target of a drive-by shooting while playing in her yard.
"I hope one day they'll finally forgive me," he said of the Menchaca family.
Benavidez's apology did little to reduce the sentence handed down from Judge Deno Himonas, who ordered Benavidez to spend 16 years to life in prison for being an accessory to the murder by serving as a getaway driver.
Benavidez, who was 20 when the shooting took place, pleaded guilty to first-degree felony murder in December. He was initially charged with aggravated murder for his part in Maria's slaying.
Maria's parents, Gilberto and Carmen Menchaca, did not speak at Benavidez's sentencing Friday. Deputy District Attorney Blake Hills said the family's experience of speaking at the sentencing for the shooter in the case, Gabriel Alejandro Alvarez, was too painful to repeat.
Gilberto Menchaca shook his head silently in disbelief as Benavidez offered his apology.
Hills told the court before Benavidez's sentencing that Maria's murder destroyed the Menchaca family and harmed the entire community.
"I cannot truly understand what they've gone through nor can anyone else," Hills said. He said Maria's slaying, carried out in broad daylight, "hurts the entire community, because the community doesn't feel safe anymore."
Alvarez, 16 at the time of the shooting, pleaded guilty to first-degree felony murder and was sentenced in August to 16 years to life in prison. The Utah Board of Pardons last year scheduled his first parole hearing for July 2033.
A third co-defendant, Mae Goodman Johnson, 17, has pleaded guilty to second-degree felony manslaughter for providing the murder weapon to Alvarez. She is next scheduled to appear in court May 7.
Alvarez and Johnson both were riding in an SUV driven by Benavidez when Alvarez opened fire, according to charging documents. Police said the girl was not the intended target of the shooting but was outdoors at the time with her older cousin, Luis Menchaca.
Earlier that day, charges state, Benavidez had shouted death threats and Johnson uttered obscenities at Luis Menchaca and another minor at the home. After that verbal confrontation, Johnson got a gun from her home and gave it to Alvarez, then the three drove back to Menchaca's neighborhood, according to charges.
Luis Menchaca was with Maria and another child when he spotted the vehicle with a gunman inside and told the children to run, charges state.
Alvarez fired at Luis Menchaca but hit Maria instead, prosecutors say.
Benavidez's attorney, Denise Porter, said her client is determined to change his life as a result of Maria's murder.
She said events leading up to the shooting escalated in part because those involved drank a "significant" amount of beer and were using drugs prior to arriving at the Menchaca home. She said Benavidez is committed to embracing rehabilitation programs the prison offers, including substance abuse and anger management treatment.
She said her client, who completed school up to the 9th grade in Juarez, Mexico, has worked to become bilingual in English and Spanish and "wants to serve as an example that people can change."
"There is nothing that we can do or say here today that would ever attempt to fix the loss that they feel," said Porter of the Menchaca family. She said her client hopes his guilty plea in the case will help the family to "find peace."