Travis County jurors sentenced Derrick Kuykendall to 15 years in prison Friday for the death of a 23-year-old man, after a March 2013 argument between two groups of downtown revelers ended with gunfire.When the jurors reached the decision after two-and-a-half hours of deliberation, they included a note asking for Kuykendall to receive psychiatric help while incarcerated.
That unusual gesture suggested to Kuykendall’s attorneys that the jurors understood what they’d been arguing throughout the trial: that Kuykendall, also 23, was a scared young man who acted out of an instinct for survival. Jurors convicted him Thursday of manslaughter, not the first-degree felony murder charge presented by prosecutors.
Kuykendall had been bar hopping with a group of friends during Texas Relays weekend in March 2013 when an argument erupted with another group in a parking lot on East 11th and Trinity streets, according to testimony from several witnesses. Kuykendall didn’t start the fight, but as it escalated, one of the young men in the other group, Pflugerville resident Bennie Heslip, put his hands on Kuykendall’s shoulders. Kuykendall pulled a gun and fired twice.
Prosecutors called his actions “ridiculous,” pointing out that Kuykendall was already on community supervision for a previous conviction of tampering with evidence.
Kuykendall’s family, who knew that he’d been seriously injured in a random drive-by shooting two years earlier, were shocked that his actions had resulted in someone’s death, but said he acted from a place of paranoia and fear that were the result of a difficult life.
While visiting his grandmother in Killeen in 2011, he was shot in the back in a drive-by shooting. Police never found the culprit, but the attack resulted in many surgeries for Kuykendall, who still hasn’t fully recovered, family members said.
Just three weeks before he shot Heslip, Kuykendall attended the funeral of a friend in New Orleans who was shot multiple times, family members said. As a boy, he and his mother fled New Orleans as refugees from Hurricane Katrina. As a teenager, he watched his stepfather kill himself.
“We’ve seen a whole lot of stuff that a child shouldn’t see,” said his mother, Sherell Damas, who testified Friday.
A cousin of Kuykendall’s also testified that she wouldn’t be surprised if he had post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as a result of the 2011 drive-by shooting. Shontell Riley was diagnosed with the disorder after she was injured in an insurgent attack in Afghanistan, where she worked as a government contractor.
“It’s a tragic loss for both families,” Riley said. “It was a very costly mistake, one that he’s extremely remorseful about. Both men have been robbed of the prime years of their lives.”