Frederick “Toots” Hibbert asked a judge not to put in jail the man who drunkenly threw a vodka bottle that struck the reggae singer in the head and seriously injured him as he was performing at a Richmond festival last spring.
“He is a young man, and I have heard what happens to young men in jail,” Hibbert wrote in a letter that was read Thursday in Richmond Circuit Court. “My own pain and suffering would be increased substantially knowing that this young man would face that prospect.”
But despite Hibbert’s letter, Richmond prosecutor Anne Lloyd argued Thursday that the seriousness of the defendant’s actions warranted a one-year jail term, the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor charge of assault and battery.
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Judge Margaret P. Spencer, after hearing testimony from several witnesses, ordered William Connor Lewis to serve six months in jail. The judge also denied defense requests that Lewis be allowed to serve his term later and to do so on work release.
Lewis, 20, had faced a felony charge of malicious wounding for throwing the bottle that struck Hibbert on May 18 at the Dominion Riverrock festival on Brown’s Island, leaving the 71-year-old musician with a concussion and a wound that required six staples. But the defendant pleaded guilty Thursday to the lesser charge of assault and battery.
Hibbert was struck by the 1.75-liter bottle as his band, Toots and the Maytals, the headline act for the festival, was performing the song “Country Roads.”
Lewis, who had a large number of supporters packed into the courtroom gallery, also apologized to Hibbert and to the city of Richmond for the negative publicity and embarrassment he said his actions have caused.
Lloyd told the judge that Lewis had been drinking straight vodka from the bottle when he threw it.
Lloyd read Hibbert’s letter and told the judge that the musician did not attend the hearing because the injuries he suffered from the assault have left him unable to travel from his home in Jamaica.
In the letter, Hibbert wrote that he has performed for more than 50 years and has traveled the world to share his music with millions of fans. “Up until this incident, I’ve always looked forward to entertaining my audience, seeing their smiling faces, enjoying their warm embraces and connecting with them as human beings,” he wrote.
Hibbert wrote that he no longer feels safe, has not performed in more than seven months and had to cancel all his tours since he was injured in Richmond.
“I continue to suffer from extreme anxiety, memory loss, headaches, dizziness and most sadly of all, a fear of crowds and performing,” he wrote. “I am not able to write songs as I did before or remember the lyrics of songs that I wrote and have performed for decades.”
In June, Hibbert filed a $21 million civil lawsuit against Lewis, a former Radford University student who lives in Chesterfield County with his father, a real estate lawyer.
One of the attorneys representing Hibbert in the lawsuit further set the stage for the looming civil case when he took the witness stand during Thursday’s hearing in the criminal case. The judge, however, said she gave no weight to his testimony because it restated things that Hibbert had written in his letter.
But the Los Angeles-based attorney, Michael R. Shapiro, testified that Hibbert once was a jolly “Santa Claus figure” who acted like a much younger man than his 71 years, but that he now fears his fans and does not think he can ever go back to being a performer.
“To me, your honor, he’s become an old man,” Shapiro said.
Christopher Collins, the attorney representing Lewis in the criminal case, argued that Lewis, who goes by his middle name, Connor, clearly had too much to drink on the night of the assault, but that his actions, although “monumentally stupid,” were not malicious.
Collins added that Lewis has performed community service and is now waiting tables at a restaurant. Collins said the bottle-throwing incident resulted in Lewis being “kicked out” of Radford.
The defendant’s father, William K. Lewis, and other supporters testified that Lewis is very remorseful and has been struggling with what happened to Hibbert.
“This is a kid who’s never given us any problem at all,” said the elder Lewis, adding that his son had no criminal record has never gotten a speeding ticket.
He said his son normally is outgoing and has a lot of friends, but that he now “stays pretty close to home” and can sometimes be heard crying in the middle of the night.
When the defendant addressed the judge, he said that he had been sharing the vodka bottle with others at the concert and that, when it was empty, he tossed it into the air.
“There was absolutely no intent to hit anyone,” Lewis said. “Mr. Hibbert wasn’t a target. No one was a target.”
He said he does not have a drug or alcohol problem, had made the dean’s list at Radford and has never been in a fight in his life.
“I brought embarrassment to my city,” he said, “and that was not my intention.”