A Jackson County judge Friday sentenced Christopher Taylor to 17 years in state prison for fatally shooting Whitney Gray, a 22-year-old mother of two, in a fit of road rage one Sunday evening in October 2016.
Taylor, 41, of Independence, had been charged with second-degree murder and armed criminal action for responding to a cup of clear liquid that Gray’s passenger threw at his SUV by reaching for his gun and shooting through the windshield of Gray's minivan. A jury two months ago convicted him of involuntary manslaughter, which carries a maximum sentence of seven years, and armed criminal action, which carries at least a three-year sentence.
Circuit Judge Marco Roldan sentenced Taylor to seven years for involuntary manslaughter and 17 years for armed criminal action. The sentences run concurrently, and he gets credit for time served.
“I cannot, in good conscience, base the sentence solely on involuntary manslaughter when there is armed criminal action involved,” Roldan said just before announcing his verdict, which elicited some sudden gasps from members of Gray's family.
Earlier, Roldan said the decision had weighed heavily on him this week, and he had read all nine victim-impact statements and 12 letters in support of Taylor.
“There are so many important factors I have to look at. I have to weigh them and balance them,” Roldan said, talking about the jury's verdict, the circumstances of Gray's death and the impact on her family, plus Taylor's life and background.
“This never would've occurred had you not taken aggressive actions while driving,” Roldan. “They were in no way showing any harm or threat to you. You never surrendered yourself – in fact, quite the opposite.”
Witnesses had testified to Taylor driving closely behind Gray while going north on Sterling near 23rd Street. Stopped at the intersection of Winner Road, Gray, Taylor and Gray's front-seat passenger, her niece, had a shouting exchange, including that Gray's two sons were in the backseat. The niece threw the cup of liquid that hit Taylor's SUV.
In a taped confession to police in South Dakota after he was captured a couple days later, Taylor said he had reverted to his basic Army training – “reacting to contact” – after he responded to the thrown cup by reaching for his gun and shooting.
“I don't know why, but it was a negligent discharge,” Taylor said. “I didn't want it to happen, I couldn't believe it had happened, I panicked, I just hit the gas. I didn't know what the hell to do; I was scared.”
In his victim-impact testimony, Gray's father, Sean, debunked Taylor's claim about Army training, based on his own and his son's military experience, and he said Taylor was “very careless with his weapon.”
“I don't believe he's safe for society,” he said.
Gray said his two grandsons, who were 6 months and 3 years old when their mother was killed, have been with him and his wife.
“Since the day it happened, it's been quite a big task having two little ones with us,” he said, adding that the older son has had nightmares about the shooting.
“How do you comfort a 5-year-old like that,” he said. “My grandchildren have been given a life sentence of not having their mother.”
Whitney Gray's aunt Angela showed a stuffed monkey Whitney had given her son, one that played her voice when squeezed.
“That's the only way he gets to hear his mom's voice,” she said, adding that the family has been “devastated” by Whitney's death and that her great-niece, the one who threw the drink and steered the minivan as it coasted to a stop after the shooting, struggles daily with the aftermath.
Both Sean and Angela Gray, along with prosecutor Michael Hunt, asked for the maximum sentence, which could have been up to life in prison for armed criminal action.
“This crime had the maximum result,” Hunt said. “It deserves so much more than what we can do today.”
Taylor's uncle Jim Luke and his friend Mike Legrant both expressed their sorrow to Gray's family and said Taylor's actions ran completely contrary to the man the knew and worked alongside.
“But I know words are cheap and nothing can bring her back,” Luke said. “I never saw any behavior that would speak of what happened. When it happened, it took me about a week to believe it happened.”
“I just never had negative feelings about him,” said Legrant, who added he and his wife would let Taylor watch their kids.
After Taylor shot Gray, sped home and then heard on radio that the shooting had been fatal, grabbed a bunch of possessions, ignored his phone and left town. He threw the murder weapon in the Missouri River in South Dakota, he said, and later stopped at a hotel just east of Rapid City, intending to drive back the next day and turn himself in. Officers had used the tracking device on Taylor's recently purchased SUV and notified local authorities, who captured him at the hotel after ramming his vehicle to draw him out of the room.