The plea agreement was cemented just moments after the hearing began.
Public Defender Kevin O’Brien conferred with Assistant Prosecutor Steven Berry in the brand-new third-floor courtroom of the Boone County Courthouse, then ambled back to the defense table, where 23-year-old Clyde Hyler III of Columbia sat waiting in shackles for his sentence.
“Fourteen and six,” O’Brien quietly told Hyler. “That’s all I got.”
Fourteen years for voluntary manslaughter and six years for stealing, to be served consecutively.
Hyler shook his head slowly, looking down at the table; no, no, no. O’Brien persisted, and Hyler continued to stare at the table and shake his prematurely bald head at the deal: 20 years — a sentence almost as long as he has lived.
Hyler finally relented after further deliberations, and his guilty plea was entered.
It would be the short and quiet coda to the slaying of a 29-year-old Columbia man that happened on Quail Drive almost a year ago today. On Aug. 21, 2008, Hyler and another man — Antoine Harris, 32, of Columbia — killed 29-year-old Antonio Flores-Ramirez and wounded another man in an apparent drug-dealing scam gone sour.
Hyler’s plea came on the heels of Harris’ plea change Monday in the same case. Harris pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and first-degree assault. He received two 25-year sentences for the murder and assault charges, to be served concurrently.
It was part of an agreement to testify against Hyler in his trial, which was scheduled for next week. One charge of robbery and two charges of armed criminal action were dropped as part of the deal.
Berry said Hyler’s plea likely came as the result of Harris’ change of plea on Monday. Although Harris was charged with murder and assault, and Hyler with voluntary manslaughter, Berry said that the charges don't necessarily mean Harris fired the shot that killed Flores-Ramirez.
However, Berry said that “the facts at trial would be that Antoine Harris is the shooter.”
According to previous Missourian reporting, police believed the shooting was the result of a drug set-up in which the victims, Flores-Ramirez and Javier Perdoza, 23, were to be robbed. Both men thought they were going to buy drugs from Harris and Hyler, police said.
Flores-Ramirez was found dead after police responded to reports of shots fired on Quail Drive. Perdoza was later found in a nearby apartment with a gunshot wound to the chest, but he survived. He is a Mexican citizen, as was Flores-Ramirez.
According to a probable cause statement, Harris had no marijuana when he was arrested in Fulton a few hours later. Instead, police discovered a small "two-by-two-inch shaped substance of what, at first glance, appeared to be marijuana." The statement said police later determined the substance to be alfalfa squares, commonly used as rabbit food.
Hyler was arrested in Columbia during a traffic stop in October 2008. He was driving a stolen car from Kansas City, police said.
He originally pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The start of Wednesday’s hearing was delayed half an hour as Circuit Judge Gary Oxenhandler spoke to a tour group of senior citizens in his courtroom. Before giving a lengthy question-and-answer session, Oxenhandler demonstrated the new technology of the recently refurbished Boone County courthouse for the tour group, at one point playing a clip featuring Tom Cruise and Jack Nicholson from “A Few Good Men” on the courtroom’s large, flat-screen TV.
Thirty minutes later, Oxenhandler, with much greater formality, told 6-foot Hyler to watch his head for the low-hanging TV as the defendant made his way to the stand to plead guilty in a now-empty courtroom.