NAPLES — Staring down the possibility of life in prison, Howard Lee Brice changed his mind at the last minute.
With 43 potential jurors waiting in the wings Tuesday morning, the 22-year-old Naples man accepted a plea agreement that reduced a first-degree murder charge to manslaughter, sending him to prison for 13 years for his role in an October 2008 fatal shooting at River Park. A surviving victim said the sentence is too soft.
At a hearing Monday, Brice balked at the 13-year offer, going against his lawyer's advice and appearing to upset his family. But before prospective jurors were brought in Tuesday morning, Brice made an about-face.
"Some defendants, when they hear the feet of jurors coming down the hall, they know it's time to make that decision," said John McGowan, Brice's lawyer.
In exchange for avoiding a possible life sentence, Brice agreed to testify at the trial of his co-defendant, Rodsheek Williams, 24, the alleged trigger man.
Naples police said Brice and Williams robbed two men — Jacques Lamothe, 63, and Joseph Eisenhower — before Williams shot the two victims. Lamothe died of a gunshot wound to the chest, and Eisenhower survived shots to the head and foot, police said.
On Tuesday, Eisenhower called Brice's sentence too lenient, saying he believes Brice would have shot him had he been armed.
"I don't want this guy to be out for any reason," Eisenhower, 54, said.
Assuming he testifies truthfully, Brice won't be sentenced until Williams' case is resolved. The next court hearing for Williams is scheduled for May 25.
Under the agreement, Brice receives credit for time served — he's been in jail for about three and a half years — and wouldn't be on probation once released.
Brice also pleaded no contest to robbery with a deadly weapon Tuesday. Charges of attempted premeditated murder and attempted robbery with a weapon would be dropped at sentencing.
Before being sent back to jail, Brice, dressed in a brown suit, said goodbye to the family that walked out of his hearing Monday before it ended, apparently upset with his reluctance to take the plea offer. He shook the hand of an aunt and uncle, then hugged another aunt and his mother.
McGowan said Brice has given a statement about the shooting that prosecutors can use against Williams. Brice met Williams at a party and was following Williams when the shooting occurred.
"I think he was pretty much just there," McGowan said. "He was an 18-year-old kid caught up in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong guy.
Eisenhower said Brice and Williams watched him for about five hours before the shooting, passing him four times.
"What I'm still trying to figure out is why they did what they did," Eisenhower said. "He killed somebody for no reason. He killed one of the most quiet, simple guys who never had trouble with no one."
Assistant State Attorney Dave Scuderi declined to discuss the effect of Brice's plea agreement on Williams' case because it's pending.
"We feel that this agreement is in the best interest of the state," Scuderi said.
Eisenhower said he has largely recovered from his injuries. One bullet grazed Eisenhower's face, and another shattered bones in his right foot. Eisenhower said he lost some sensation in the foot and has trouble walking long distances.