The teenager who fatally shot Spring Garden neighborhood activist Gerard Grandzol in front of his 2-year-old daughter during a September 2017 robbery pleaded guilty on Friday to first-degree murder and related offenses, and was sentenced to 35 years to life in state prison.
After an emotional three-hour hearing, during which 16 relatives and friends of Grandzol told Common Pleas Court Judge Glenn Bronson that Grandzol was like no one else they ever knew — one person called him “our Santa Claus, our Mr. Rogers, and our Mr. Fix-It" — Bronson said the slaying had “the most devastating impact” he had ever heard of on a family and a community.
The judge, who had seen a video of the shooting, said he had “concerns for the safety of the public," but was accepting the negotiated sentence “with some trepidation” to give the case finality, to avoid a trial for the victim’s family, and because the district attorney’s homicide chief, Anthony Voci, said the defendant may be cooperating in other cases.
Roberts’ plea followed that of his brother Maurice, 21, who pleaded guilty two weeks ago to third-degree murder, robbery, and conspiracy to commit robbery, and was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in state prison.
When the younger brother, now 18, entered the packed courtroom in the Criminal Justice Center on Friday wearing a white skullcap, white shirt, sneakers, and black jeans, and sat at the defense table, Grandzol’s widow, Kristin, stared at him.
The slaying happened in a generally safe neighborhood and in front of the victim’s toddler daughter. Some relatives and friends told the judge they wanted Roberts sentenced to the maximum term of life in prison.
Maureen Grandzol Newberry, one of Grandzol’s four sisters, called the Roberts brothers “psychopaths” who “never gave” her brother a chance to take his daughter out of her car seat before Marvin Roberts shot him. “I do believe he deserves life in prison,” she said.
Jesse Fabian, who described Grandzol as his best friend, told the judge, “I don’t believe the plea here holds the defendant accountable for what he has done." He asked the judge to “impose the strictest sentence possible.”
Bronson noted that the sentence of 35 years to life was the mandatory minimum allowed for Roberts, and that it was below the sentencing guideline range.
Voci told the judge that the plea would not only spare the victim’s family from a trial and possibly years of appeals if Roberts were convicted, but that Roberts a week ago talked with prosecutors “about some matters not related to this case” and that his cooperation “may bear fruit.”
Kristin Grandzol, 35, told the judge that she was traumatized by her husband’s death, that their older daughter, Violet, 3, remains frightened and devastated, and that their younger daughter, Rose, 1, will never get to know her father. She noted that U.S. Sen. Bob Casey had spoken about her husband’s murder on the Senate floor during a discussion of gun violence. And she recalled that Philadelphia City Council President Darrell L. Clarke had called her husband “the go-to guy” in his community.
“I understand why everyone wants more time [in prison for Roberts], because I do as well," she said. But she said that she understood from prosecutors that a trial could be a “roll of the dice,” and said, “I don’t want to take any chance.”
When Bronson asked Roberts if he wanted to say anything, he simply shook his head. His lawyer, Eileen Hurley, told the judge that her client was sorry for what he did. Assistant District Attorney Joanne Pescatore, however, said Roberts showed no remorse.
In June 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court declared unconstitutional a mandatory life sentence for those who were under 18 at the time of their crime. Pennsylvania courts now have some discretion in sentencing a person convicted of first-degree murder who was under 18 at the time. District Attorney Larry Krasner has been seeking lighter sentences as part of his agenda to lower prison populations.
The evidence against both brothers was strong. After leaving their Tioga home on Sept. 7, 2017, they confronted Grandzol about 8 p.m. after he parked his Audi SUV outside his home on the 1500 block of Melon Street.
Marvin Roberts grabbed a 9mm pistol from his older brother’s backpack and demanded Grandzol’s wallet. Grandzol willingly handed it over. But when Roberts demanded the keys to the SUV, Grandzol asked to first get his daughter out of the back seat.
Pescatore told the judge that Roberts grabbed Grandzol’s arm, swung him around, and shot him twice in the face, killing him in front of his daughter.
The shooting was caught on a neighbor’s surveillance video, which also had audio.
After the shooting, subway surveillance video showed the brothers laughing, Pescatore has said.