He was a 20-year-old man who fought for his innocence and lost, he said. Facing decades in prison, he could only beg for mercy.
“The decisions that I made, the people I put around myself, the actions that … I made is why I’m here today,” Howard said Tuesday in Stark County Common Pleas Court, where he was sentenced to 30 years in prison after being convicted of a home-invasion robbery and rape.
Once Ohio’s two-time Mr. Football at Hoover High School in North Canton, Howard is now a felon and a life-time sex offender.
He felt bad for what happened to the victims and everyone who was affected, he said. He asked for the chance to be free before his two young children are “grown and gone.”
“…Don’t be mad at anyone but me because I decided to sell drugs,” he said. “I decided to get involved in that kind of life when I came back from school. It’s all been my choice.”
Judge Taryn L. Heath had words of her own while handing down a sentence that more than doubled the 12-year offer Howard turned down before his trial.
Howard showed “no moral compass for his behavior” when he didn’t stop at robbing the victims of money, the judge said.
“He chose to rob a young woman of her dignity just because he could,” Heath said.
A jury convicted Howard on Thursday of aggravated burglary, aggravated robbery, kidnapping and rape, all with firearm specifications.
Two co-defendants testified that he helped plan and carry out the early-morning home-invasion robbery, which targeted a marijuana dealer and the man’s girlfriend while they were sleeping.
The victims said they were held at gunpoint and bound with duct tape inside their Sunford Avenue SE townhouse on Aug. 20 by two masked men.
The female victim, who said she could identify Howard as one of the robbers by his voice, testified that Howard penetrated her vagina with a gloved finger or the tip of a gun.
The jury also saw video from a Walmart store that witnesses said showed Howard and accomplice Seth R. Obermiller, 20, of Lake Township buying duct tape and gloves before the robbery.
Obermiller is serving a seven-year sentence. A third co-defendant, Michael A. Taylor, 20, of North Canton, was given probation and ordered into a regional correctional facility after serving as the lookout. Both testified against Howard.
Howard didn’t testify during the trial. He can appeal his conviction and sentence.
HOW MUCH TIME?
A key issue at Tuesday’s sentencing hearing was the amount of prison time Howard faced.
Given the underlying charges and the fact that firearm specifications usually merge, the maximum appeared to be 41 years in prison.
But Heath said her reading of the law, supported by county prosecutors, was that she could imprison Howard for up to 50 years.
Defense attorney Rufus Sims objected to that conclusion.
He also said Howard didn’t have a prior adult record and that a lengthy prison term was less likely to result in rehabilitation.
Assistant Stark County Prosecutor Chryssa Hartnett characterized Howard as a master manipulator who blamed everyone else for his situation and asked the judge to punish him appropriately.
“The only miscarriage of justice is that he wasn’t stopped sooner before it came to all of this,” Hartnett said.
Hoover High football coach Don Hertler Jr. described a Howard in kinder terms.
Howard lived with Hertler for nine months during his junior year. The coach recalled that Howard lost his father to an industrial accident as a child, and needed extra guidance in life.
“I do love this man like a son,” Hertler said. “Good, bad or indifferent.”
While feeling bad for the victims, the coach asked the judge to use restraint and common sense.
The case wasn’t about a star football player, Hertler said. “It’s about a 20-year-old man who I hope gets a chance to redeem himself a little sooner than later.”