Denise McNerney agonized for the past year over whether she could bring herself to forgive the three men who robbed and killed her son, a standout Washington & Jefferson College football player, nearly two years ago as he walked home to campus with a friend in Washington.
By Monday morning’s sentencing hearing, she decided she couldn’t and said forgiveness ultimately would be up to God, instead. But she suggested the three defendants think about Timothy McNerney each day and work to improve themselves while they serve their prison sentences.
“What I want you to understand is you have no idea the pain our family has felt and will feel for years,” Denise McNerney said while sobbing during her victim impact statement. “Trying to find forgiveness, this is the hardest decision in my life. But I tell you that I can’t forgive you.”
Visiting Allegheny County Judge Edward Borkowski handed down different sentences to Eric Wells, Adam Hankins and Troy Simmons Jr. for their varying roles in the Oct. 4, 2012, killing of McNerney and assault on his friend, Zach DeCicco, as the two men walked along South College Street, heading home to their dorms.
Wells, 25, of Pittsburgh, who delivered the blow that killed McNerney during the robbery, faces the harshest punishment, 13 to 31 years in prison. Hankins, 25, of Washington, was sentenced to nine to 25 years for his role in the murder and robbery, while Simmons, 24, of East Pittsburgh, faces seven to 20 years. Borkowski decided to put a “long tail” on the sentences so the three men are more likely to spend closer to the maximum in jail. The three also will be on probation for five years upon their release and must pay a prorated portion of $11,000 in funeral expenses to the McNerney family.
DeCicco, who suffered a broken nose in the assault, said the experience changed his life and made him less trusting and uneasy around strangers. He said he finished his degree at W&J that fall under the fear of another attack, and it marred his experience at the school.
“I was just a normal student-athlete (before the assault),” DeCicco said. “My life changed dramatically. I don’t take anything for granted. I lost one of my best friends who I’ll never talk to again.”
McNerney, 21, of Butler, died of trauma from the assault when his head struck a brick wall after Wells punched him. Wells, Hankins and Simmons were not arrested until Aug. 6, 2013, when investigators used the global-positioning system in McNerney’s cellphone that was stolen during the assault and were able to trace it to the men’s location in McDonald.
The three men pleaded guilty to robbery, and Borkowski found them guilty of third-degree murder during a nonjury trial May 28. The judge called the fatal attack an “unfortunate crime of opportunity fueled by alcohol and ego.”
Washington County District Attorney Eugene Vittone said the killing “tore a hole in the community” and rattled both W&J and Washington to the core.
Each of the men, shackled and wearing orange prison garments, addressed the family, apologized for their role in McNerney’s death and asked for forgiveness.
“I wish I could offer more than a sincere apology, but I can’t,” Wells said as he faced the family sitting in the courtroom. “I am not defined by my mistakes. I’m better than this. I apologize.”
Hankins apologized and said his greatest punishment is he won’t be there for his young son as he grows.
“I can’t imagine how horrifying this experience is,” Hankins said to the family. “I will find a way to make up for my mistakes and make a difference in the world.”
Simmons said he was “truly sorry” for his role in the fight and robbery.
“My actions were selfish, they were stupid, they were reckless,” Simmons said. “That night is unforgettable.”
Wells held up his head and watched during the victim impact statements, while Simmons and Hankins both looked down.
McNerney’s father, Robert, said he doubted their remorse and said the apologies were no consolation to his wife.
“I lost what’s most valuable in my world,” Denise McNerney said. “His spirit was kind, and it was good.”