A Virginia man who says he punched a woman because she called him the n-word has been convicted of second-degree murder. On Monday an Arlington, Va., jury recommended that Robert Coleman, 27, serve 10 years behind bars for the death of Fedelia Montiel-Benitez, who died in July.
But the circumstances of Montiel-Benitez’s death were hotly contested by the prosecution and Coleman’s lawyers, who expressed disappointment that their client wasn’t given a manslaughter charge.
The fateful encounter between Montiel-Benitez and Coleman began at a 7-Eleven. As the Washington Post reports, Coleman had gone into the convenience store to buy cigarettes; Montiel-Benitez, to buy alcohol. The two strangers then got into an argument (it’s still unknown about what), which Coleman’s girlfriend, Nikki Howard, had to break up. Surveillance video shows Montiel-Benitez leaving the 7-Eleven before she turns around to face Coleman again.
That’s when she called him the n-word, Coleman told detectives. He snapped and chased Montiel-Benitez outside, throwing a punch at the 39-year-old woman that would put her in a coma.
She died in a hospital 10 days later.
Prosecutors disputed Coleman’s account, saying that Montiel-Benitez didn’t speak English well enough to use the slur (a claim that ignores how prevalent both the n-word and anti-blackness are), but they also said that even if Montiel-Benitez did use the racial slur, Coleman’s response still wasn’t justified.
But Coleman insists that he never meant to kill Montiel-Benitez. In fact, Coleman told detectives that he thought that the victim, who was heavyset and wore her hair short, was a man.
Still, Coleman likely didn’t help his case when he fled the scene of the assault. When he was tracked down by a detective, Coleman initially denied any involvement until it was revealed that the woman was in critical condition.
During closing arguments, prosecutor David Lord told the jury that “words alone” shouldn’t be a reason to kill someone. Coleman’s defense had hoped that the jury would see the incident as manslaughter, emphasizing that their client hadn’t intended to take Montiel-Benitez’s life.
Both second-degree murder and manslaughter apply to killings that weren’t premeditated or planned—the major distinction between the two is that manslaughter charges are typically applied in instances where the assailant was acting under extreme duress (in other words, where the assailant was provoked to act in an unreasonable or disturbed way). Judging by the charge the district attorney hit Coleman with, being called the n-word doesn’t fit that kind of provocation.
As the Post reports, a judge is expected to formally sentence Coleman on May 24 and will likely adhere to the jury’s 10-year recommendation. The maximum punishment for second-degree murder is 40 years in prison.