Monte Deshawn Asheem Taylor will turn 21 early next week, but he won’t celebrate that milestone in the company of his family and friends, or with dinner at his favorite restaurant, or by ordering his first legal drink of alcohol.
Taylor on Monday in Roanoke was given a sentence of life in prison, with that time to be suspended after he’s served 52 years, just over a half-century behind bars.
He will not be eligible to seek probation until he turns 60, roughly until the tail end of the summer of the year 2058.
Taylor’s punishment came in response to a cluster of crimes he is convicted of committing last year: the shooting death of 22-year-old Michael Cardona Santamarina and the aggravated malicious wounding by gunfire of Troy Savion Gastelo, as well as firing into an occupied vehicle, plus four other gun offenses from the attack which, on their own, called for 18 years in mandatory minimum time.
Friends and relatives of Taylor and Santamarina were present in court and reacted with high emotion upon hearing the news.
Taylor’s sentence actually falls closer to the lower end of his judicial sentencing guidelines, which ranged from 45 to 75 years, with a midpoint of 60 years. Those recommendations were elevated primarily because of Taylor’s criminal history, which is extensive and brutal despite his age.
“This city is plagued with gun violence,” assistant prosecutor Sheri Mason said in court. “And Mr. Taylor has participated in that violence many, many times.”
The first incident that saw Taylor charged as an adult occurred in the summer of 2014, and though that case did not involve a firearm, its severity was resonant. Taylor, 16 at the time, was one of a group of youths in a Grandin Road brawl that ended with a teen hospitalized after being hit in the face with a baseball bat.
Taylor did not wield the bat but pleaded no contest to two misdemeanors, assault and battery by mob and accessory after the fact to malicious wounding. He was ordered to serve six months in a rehabilitation program at the Lynchburg Regional Juvenile Detention Center.
In May 2016, Taylor found himself on the receiving end of gun violence when he was shot and injured at 13th Street and Salem Avenue.
He spent three months in the hospital, but by the time a suspect was charged with wounding him, Taylor, then 17, was already accused in another and apparently unrelated shooting, prompting the charges against Taylor’s alleged assailant to be dropped.
“His credibility as a witness, at this time, is not enough to go forward,” prosecutors said of Taylor that fall.
But charges did soon proceed against Taylor, who was accused of shooting at a woman on Chapman Avenue just one month after his release from the hospital. He pleaded no contest in May 2017 to attempted malicious wounding and for missing a court date and got 10 months in jail, with about five years in suspended time and three years of probation.
That period of supervision was still in effect on the afternoon of Jan. 5, 2018, when Santamarina and Gastelo were ambushed as they sat in an SUV outside an apartment building on Burks Street Southwest.
Their vehicle was flanked by two gunmen. Santamarina, at the wheel, was fatally shot through the head. Gastelo, in the front passenger seat, took a bullet near his right armpit and survived, but the slug remains lodged in his spinal column, prosecutors said.
An investigation quickly led police to raid a nearby apartment on Westover Avenue, where Taylor and Dejon Leslie White, 23, were found and charged.
Detectives located two pistols hidden in the woods behind the apartment, a Glock and a Luger, and a forensic firearms expert later testified that he believed the Glock fired the fatal shot and the Luger wounded Gastelo.
In late February, White pleaded guilty to charges from the shootings, including murder, and is now serving a 25-year term.
One week after that, Taylor’s case was heard by a jury across three days, during which Gastelo testified and identified Taylor as the man who shot and injured him.
On the fourth day, just before deliberations were to begin, Taylor unexpectedly halted his trial and entered no contest pleas to eight felonies: murder, attempted murder, aggravated malicious wounding, shooting into an occupied vehicle and four gun charges.
Three of the members of Taylor’s jury, approached after the case was over, said that they would have been inclined to acquit Taylor, and at the start of Monday’s sentencing, he formally asked to withdraw his pleas and receive a new trial, but that request was denied.
One witness testified Monday on Taylor’s behalf: his mother, Lolita Haskins, 43.
She described him as an intelligent child growing up, given to joking around in class when he grew bored with schoolwork, but said that in his teens he became distant following the death of his grandfather.
“He turned to the streets,” Haskins said, and recalled that his demeanor changed even more after he was shot: “He had an ‘I don’t care’ attitude. He just wasn’t himself.”
“Monte is a good child. He made a bad mistake,” she said. “He still has family that loves him.”
Defense attorney Brad Thompson argued that Taylor should serve the same term as Dejon White, 25 years, but Mason countered that White’s criminal history was comparatively negligible. Court records show he has one misdemeanor gun conviction from 2015; robbery and malicious wounding charges brought against him that same year were ultimately dropped.
Before delivering his sentence, Judge Chris Clemens told Taylor his injuries in 2016 could have prompted a different reaction, sent him in another direction.
“You’ve been shot, then you’re shooting. All of that happened before this case,” Clemens said.
He said he felt Taylor’s overall history required a punishment designed to protect the community: life suspended after 25 years on the murder, five years suspended for attempted murder, five years to serve on the aggravated malicious wounding, two to serve for shooting at an occupied car, and 18 years in mandatory minimum time on the gun charges. Clemens also revoked two years in suspended time for Taylor’s violation of his 2017 probation.
“Life is all about choices. I’ve made some bad choices,” Taylor said from the defense table, and he apologized to the relatives of the victims as well as his own family.
“I’m sorry any of us is here today,” he concluded, but denied firing the fatal shot. “I feel like I’m losing my life, and I didn’t take one.
“I can’t take nothing back. All I can do is move forward.”