A punch thrown, a life ended

Spend any time in Philadelphia’s criminal courts and you'll hear a sad, too-familiar tale: lives snuffed out by young men wielding semiautomatic weapons.

Perhaps that’s why last Tuesday’s case of Anthony Flowers seemed so unusual. It was a tragic, almost morbidly quaint reminder that human life is fragile enough to end not in a spray of bullets but a single punch.

Flowers is 43, an ex-con with the chest and shoulders of a wrestler. At about 11:25 p.m. on June 8, 2010, Flowers was outside in the first block of South Salford Street in West Philadelphia arguing with 53-year-old Clifford Gayle, an acquaintance of his from the neighborhood.

The reason for the argument remains murky. Some investigators thought it might have been over that night’s NBA finals, in which the Los Angeles Lakers took a 2-1 game lead in a hard-fought game against the Boston Celtics.

How it ended was crystal clear: Flowers threw what he later told police was a “one-two punch” that connected with Gayle’s forehead.

Gayle, shorter and about 40 pounds lighter, died from a blow that Assistant District Attorney Beth McCaffery said the medical examiner described as having “the impact of a moderate- to high-speed car crash.”

Flowers was charged with third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter. Represented by attorney S. Philip Steinberg, Flowers elected a nonjury trial before Common Pleas Court Judge Benjamin Lerner, who found Flowers guilty of involuntary manslaughter.

Though third-degree murder and involuntary manslaughter are both forms of homicide, they carry very different penalties under Pennsylvania law. Third-degree murder is a felony and has a 20- to 40-year prison term; involuntary manslaughter is a misdemeanor that comes with a maximum sentence of 2-1/2 to 5 years.

“Not much of a price to pay for taking a life,” commented McCaffery at last Tuesday’s sentencing hearing for Flowers.

Flowers’ younger sister, Gail Flowers, apologized to Gayle’s family, telling Lerner that “we know the family of the deceased. We’ve known them for a very long time.”

Flowers himself seemed sincerely remorseful, telling Gayle’s family: “I don’t think I’m a killer. I liked him. He was a friend of mine. I never thought it would escalate to such a place.”

Steinberg urged leniency, calling the death “an argument between two grown men that escalated.” He cited Flowers’ family support – five other relatives in court in addition to Flowers’ sister – and the 13-year-old daughter he loves. And he noted past trauma in Flowers’ life, including surviving being shot 20 times when he was 28 years old.

Lerner said he had no doubt that this was a case of involuntary manslaughter, not third-degree murder. But he also took note of Flowers’ criminal record for drug dealing and the fact that he was paroled from prison just five months before the incident after serving four years.

“Anthony Flowers has already had a second chance and a third chance and maybe even a fourth chance,” Lerner said before sentencing him to 2 to 4 years in prison followed by a year of supervised probation.

“I have no way of knowing what it was that led you to strike this fatal blow,” Lerner told Flowers. “But I do know one thing: whatever it was, it wasn’t worth this man’s life. Whether it was worth the portion of your life that it’s taken, and the portion of your life it’s going to take, is up for you to decide.”