Man who killed 7-year-old in Heber City given 1 to 15 years in prison
A Heber City man who pled guilty to manslaughter for the death of a 7-year-old girl will serve prison time.
After spending over 600 days in jail since firing a gun through a wall and killing 7-year-old Zai Rodriguez-Irizarry, Christopher O’Connell was sentenced Wednesday.
Wednesday afternoon, Judge Jennifer Mabey gave him at least one year and up to 15 years in state prison. He pled guilty to second-degree manslaughter in December on a plea deal, and one to 15 years is the full possible range for second-degree felonies outlined in Utah Code. Mabey recommended he receive credit for time he has already served in the Wasatch County Jail.
According to O’Connell’s attorney Jeanne Campbell and prosecutor Case Wade, cases like O’Connell’s often result in about nine years in prison, according to a sentencing matrix the board that will decide how long he stays could follow.
The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole will decide exactly how long O’Connell will remain in prison during a future hearing that hasn’t been scheduled yet.
The sentencing hearing included more than an hour of testimony. After Campbell and Wade, O’Connell and his parents spoke emotionally. Mabey called the decision difficult and was also visibly emotional as she delivered it.
O’Connell recalled regularly seeing the young girl, who was his next-door neighbor before her death on July 10, 2021. He said he has lived with remorse and survivor’s guilt since taking her life. He said he didn’t realize his gun was loaded when he shot it through the wall where the girl was sleeping, nor did he know she died until a detective told him later that night.
Campbell asked Mabey to consider a sentence of probation with no time served. That’s because O’Connell didn’t know the gun was loaded, he already served nearly two years in jail, and no sentence could bring the girl back.
Campbell also later told KPCW she didn’t expect O’Connell to appeal the decision.
“I think she made a very well-reasoned decision,” Campbell said. “Unless there were some way of showing this was cruel and unusual punishment, which I don't think it is, he was given a fairly decent offer, and so I think she made the best decision she could under the circumstances.”
She speculated the earliest O’Connell could be released is in four years, based on his behavior and factors such as how crowded the prison is. In Utah, only the Board of Pardons and Parole decides when a prisoner is released, according to a spokesperson with the Department of Corrections.
During the hearing, Wade argued any prison sentence less than nine years would be inappropriate. He said to let O’Connell off without serving significant time would send a message to local residents that they aren’t safe in their homes, and to society that the justice system doesn't take gun violence cases seriously.
Campbell said O’Connell will remain in the county jail until he’s transferred to the new prison near the Salt Lake City Airport. She expected that to happen next week. If it’s overcrowded there, she said he could end up in the prison in Gunnison.