Rock Hill teen pleads guilty in gang initiation double homicide where 2 victims died
A South Carolina teenager who prosecutors said was trying to become a member of the Bloods gang was sentenced Tuesday to 15 years in prison for what was described in court as “snitching” killings where two other teens died.
John’Quavius L. Kelly, now 19, agreed Tuesday in York County criminal court to a deal where he would plead guilty to two counts of voluntary manslaughter under what is called an Alford plea.
The plea came after the the January 2021 deaths of Zyon Minton, 17, and Di’Garian Foster, 18.
Kelly, alleged in court by prosecutors to be the shooter, had initially been charged with two counts of murder and could have faced 30 years or more for each death if convicted.
The plea agreement almost fell apart in court Tuesday when some members of the victims’ families told York County Judge Bill McKinnon to reject it because 15-years is too lenient a sentence for two killings.
McKinnon eventually accepted the plea agreement after Rock Hill Police Department Detective Robert Smith, the lead investigator, and prosecutor John Anthony talked to members of the victims’ families about the risks of a trial.
Prosecutors explained in court that there is a risk of a not guilty verdict in any trial. If Kelly went to trial and a jury find him not guilty, South Carolina law would require that he be set free.
No admission of guilt, but sentenced as guilty
Kelly pleaded guilty under an Alford plea, but did not admit in court Tuesday to being the person who fired the fatal shots.
For sentencing, an Alford plea is treated the same as any guilty plea, McKinnon said in court. The negotiated sentence was for 15 years in prison for both killings.
McKinnon told Kelly that under the law, an Alford plea means Kelly accepts that there is a substantial risk he would be found guilty if the case went to trial. The judge also said Kelly received a benefit of the charges being lowered to manslaughter because it carries fewer years in prison.
Voluntary manslaughter carries a range of up to 30 years in prison for each count under South Carolina law.
The killings in 2021
Anthony, 16th Circuit Deputy Solicitor and the lead prosecutor, said in court Tuesday that Kelly was the alleged shooter when the victims were gunned down outside a home. Kelly admitted to being at the scene but denied being the shooter, Anthony said.
Kelly was involved because of alleged ties with the Bloods gang, Anthony said in court.
Kelly was “becoming a member of the Gangster Killer Bloods and was going to New York to meet the gang leader,” Anthony said.
Police said in previous court hearings in 2021 that Foster, one of the victims, was targeted for allegedly being an informant -- snitching -- to police in another case.
A co-defendant told police, “Kelly went to settle a dispute with Foster,” Anthony said.
Kelly was with two other suspects in the case when the victims were shot, Anthony said. After being arrested, one of the suspects told police he saw Kelly shoot the victims, Anthony said.
All three defendants were arrested within a month of the killings.
Initial urge to reject the plea
Some family members of the victims spoke in court Tuesday against the plea agreement. The mother of Zyon Minton, and the grandmothers of Minton and Foster, urged the judge to reject the plea deal.
Laquaja Gordon, mother of Zyon Minton, said her son worked and went to school and was a a victim.
“He had a promising future,” Gordon said. “15 years is not enough time.”
Minton’s grandmother, Cheryl Holley, said Kelly showed no remorse or mercy.
“These young people have no value of human life,” Holley said.
Foster’s grandmother, Diane Foster, said she forgives Kelly, and possibly Kelly can be rehabilitated in prison so that he does not commit such an act again.
“I forgive him, but he still has to pay for the choice (Kelly) made,” Diane Foster said.
Plea deal reasonable, trial is risky
Anthony said in court that there was a risk in taking the case to trial because the only witness who alleges Kelly was the shooter in the killings is a co-defendant.
Anthony said the plea agreement was reasonable because of the facts of the case and the risk associated with going to trial. In any trial, a defendant is presumed innocent and a 12-person jury must unanimously agree to convict.
“This is a reasonable resolution although we understand it is not going to satisfy the victims’ families,” Anthony said.
Rock Hill Police Department Detective Robert Smith spoke in court to urge that the plea agreement be accepted, even though he understood the families’ frustrations. Smith, an Iraq War veteran, said that even a sentence of 45 years or life would not be justice.
“These families of the victims, I don’t blame them,” Smith said.
Yet Smith told the judge that based on the investigation, 15 years was a sentence the families could move forward from.
McKinnon initially said in court that he was inclined not to accept the plea agreement because two people were killed, there was an Alford plea with no admission of guilt, and there was no remorse.
McKinnon called a recess for prosecutors and police to talk to the families of the two victims.
After about 15 minutes, court resumed.
The prosecutor said he spoke again to the victims’ families about the risks of trial and the plea agreement. The families understood, Anthony said.
“While they are not happy with the 15-year sentence, they understand why the state has entered into this negotiation,” Anthony said.
McKinnon accepted the plea agreement.
“Justice on this Earth is never perfect,” McKinnon said.
No answers about guns
Despite Kelly being 17 at the time of the killings and legally barred from owning a handgun, it remains unclear where he obtained the weapon used in the killings.
It is illegal for anyone under age 18 in South Carolina to own or possess a handgun.
There was no testimony about where the gun came from.
Suspect apologizes in court
Kelly apologized to the families in court Tuesday. He also apologized to his own family and thanked them for supporting him.
Kelly’s lawyer, Creighton Hayes, declined comment after court about the prosecutors’ accusations of the shooting being tied to Kelly’s alleged gang activity.
What happens now?
Kelly will receive 718 days credit for time served toward the 15-year sentence. He was arrested in February 2021, according to his lawyer and the judge. He must serve at least 85 percent of the sentence before being considered for release.
Prosecutors and court records show charges including murder remain pending against the other two defendants, identified previously by police and court officials, as Jon’Tarius Delmone Reid and Kelvin Barnette Jr.
Reid and Barnette were 18 years old at the time of the killings and have not yet had their cases heard in court.