Crime

Life sentence reduced for man who murdered Miami restaurant owner in front of kids

Nakia Huggins enters Judge Victoria Del Pino's courtroom for his re-sentencing hearing in August 2017. He was re-sentenced to 55 years in prison, which means he will walk free in about 15 years.
Nakia Huggins enters Judge Victoria Del Pino's courtroom for his re-sentencing hearing in August 2017. He was re-sentenced to 55 years in prison, which means he will walk free in about 15 years. Miami Herald

A Miami judge on Tuesday reduced the life sentence of a man who was 16 when he gunned down a restaurant owner in front of his young children in 1991.

Under the new sentence, Nakia Huggins — who has already served 26 years behind bars — will likely walk free from a Florida prison in about 15 years.

Tuesday’s new sentence was mandated by a series of U.S. and Florida supreme court decisions that barred sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole for juveniles convicted of murder. The rulings, and similar ones for minors convicted of non-homicides, have led to new sentencing hearings for hundreds of juveniles in Florida.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for relatives of Paul Sarnecki, who was gunned down in August 1991 as he left his South Miami-Dade Italian restaurant, his two young kids ages 5 and 10 in the backseat. Huggins was one of two triggermen.

“I’m almost in shock,” tearful widow Lori Sarnecki said after the hearing. “I forgive Nakia but I personally believe he needs to stay in prison. There are consequences for actions.”

Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Victoria Del Pino sentenced Huggins to 55 years in prison. With good-behavior prison rules from the early 1990s, plus another sentence he’s serving for arson while behind bars, he should get out sometime around 2032.

Huggins got a second chance at freedom chiefly because of 2012’s U.S. Supreme Court decision in Miller v. Alabama, which found that life-without-parole sentences amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Justices ruled that science showed that juveniles were more susceptible to peer pressure and impulsive behavior.

Judges now must take into account evidence of a juvenile killer’s youth and upbringing. Life sentences for juvenile killers in Florida are still permissible, but must be reserved for only the most heinous killers. In a state where parole no longer exists, a new Florida law also mandates that young killers be allowed a “judicial review” of their sentence after either 15 or 25 years.

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Mary Rollins (left) is hugged by her sister Leslie Feliciano on Thursday, August 17, 2017 as they listen to a hearing for Nakia Huggins, who murdered their brother Paul Sarnecki in 1991. Huggins was re-sentenced to 55 years in prison. PATRICK FARRELL Miami Herald

Huggins’ case was complicated by a checkered track record while behind bars.

He was sentenced to 30 years for lighting his mattress on fire in 2001. Four years later, an officer's attempt to seize Huggins' homemade knife spiraled into a 200-person prison riot in 2005. That tacked on another five-year sentence. He added a second arson incident to that list a few years later, which involved a trashcan fire.

But his defense lawyer presented evidence that while behind bars, Huggins earned his high-school equivalency degree, became a paralegal and had stayed out of trouble for the past decade.

“For over 10 years now, the grave choice he made as an adolescence no longer defines him,” Judge Del Pino said on Tuesday.

Miami-Dade prosecutor Abbe Rifkin said her office will explore whether it can appeal the new sentence.

“We respect the decision of the court. We are disappointed that the killer of Mr. Sarnecki is not going to be serving the sentence we believe he earned,” Rifkin said.

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