A sometime street-corner rapper from North Philadelphia was sentenced Wednesday to 15 to 30 years in prison for his role as the driver in a 2009 drive-by shooting that mistakenly killed a Philadelphia Housing Authority carpenter.
Jamaal Simmons, 28, was found guilty of third-degree murder by a Common Pleas Court jury on Jan. 12 in the July 25, 2009 shooting that mortally wounded Rodney Barnes, a 46-year-old father of four and minister at Mount Airy Church of God in Christ.
The sentence by Judge Carolyn Engel Temin was below the 20- to 40-year maximum for a third-degree murder conviction but also took into account the fact that Simmons was not the triggerman – and has not identified who the gunman was.
Temin noted that Barnes’ family will never have closure knowing that the gunman remains at large.
Simmons apologized to the Barnes family before sentencing.
Barnes was unloading tools from his truck outside the Raymond Rosen Manor housing complex at 24th and Norris Streets when he was hit by the shot fired by a gunman in a passing van. Barnes had worked for the PHA for just six months and on the afternoon of the shooting was part of a weatherization and maintenance crew.
Trial witnesses identified Simmons as the driver of a van who parked near 23d and Norris Streets about 2 p.m. A gunman got out of the van, walked toward 24th Street, and fired at a man who Gilson said had been involved in a dispute with Simmons. The shot missed the target and struck Barnes in the back of the head. He died Aug. 5, 2009.
Simmons was arrested Sept. 1, 2009, when police in Whitehall, N.Y., stopped a minivan for speeding. A computer check showed that Simmons was wanted in the Philadelphia killing.
Simmons, who has never identified the shooter, did not testify at trial. His then-defense attorney opted not to call any character witnesses after the judge allowed Assistant District Attorney Mark Gilson to them about the violent, graphic imagery in Simmons' rap lyrics.
“I just can’t understand this one,” said defense attorney Janis Smarro, who said Simmons’ lyrics were “battle rap” in which competitors seek to outdo each other’s graphic imagery. Smarro said Simmons had no prior arrest record and was an honors graduate of Benjamin Franklin High School. “He is not the way it was portrayed at trial.”