A man who punched a woman once, killing her after they clashed inside a Northern Virginia convenience store, has been sentenced to spend the next decade behind bars.
Robert Coleman was sentenced Thursday to spend 10 years in prison, followed by three years of probation, for killing Fidelia Montiel-Benitez, a stranger, in July 2017.
The victim's 15-year-old daughter spoke at the sentencing hearing Thursday.
"I went through Mother's Day without her, and I'm going to go to my 16th birthday without her. That's not fair to a daughter," she said, starting to cry. She wore a pink sweatshirt and had her hair styled in two long braids.
NBC Washington is not naming the girl. She is in foster care after losing her mom.
Wearing a green jail jumpsuit, Coleman had no visible reaction when Circuit Court Judge James C. Clark issued the sentence. Clark called the jury's recommendation "fair and just."
Coleman's aunt, Marnika Irby, said her nephew should have been charged with manslaughter, not second-degree murder.
"I feel sorry for someone for losing their mom, but also we are losing a nephew," she said outside the courthouse after Clark imposed the sentence.
Coleman has an 8-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter.
His lawyer, Robert Jenkins, will appeal the verdict, arguing that Montiel-Benitez's death was a horrible accident and that Coleman should have been charged with manslaughter.
"He never had any thought that he was going to take someone’s life," Jenkins said outside the courthouse.
Montiel-Benitez, 39, died after Coleman punched her once outside the 7-Eleven store in the 4900 block of Seminary Road in Alexandria.
He later claimed Montiel-Benitez used a racial slur against him during their brief encounter. He also said he thought she was a man and that they would face off outside. Prosecutors said Coleman was a bully who was looking for a fight.
Surveillance footage obtained by News4 shows the strangers' interaction inside the store and a glimpse of the devastating punch.
"To me, my mom was my best friend," the victim's daughter said softly at the trial.
"I'm traumatized. I can't sleep at night. It's difficult. I'm really anxious," the teenager testified.
Before the attack that would kill Montiel-Benitez, security footage from before midnight July 10, 2017 shows her walk calmly into the 7-Eleven store. Wearing a hooded sweatshirt and carrying a purple backpack, she heads to the cooler, picks out three bottles of beer and walks to the counter.
As she waits for the cashier to ring her up, Coleman walks in and stands a few feet from her. Several seconds later, his girlfriend, Nikki Howard, enters and heads to the soda machine.
As Montiel-Benitez and Coleman wait at the register, Coleman appears to get impatient, pacing behind Montiel-Benitez and crossing his arms. She pays and starts to load the bottles into the backpack at her feet.
Then, the silent video shows Coleman appear to say something to Montiel-Benitez. At 6-foot-2, he looms over Montiel-Benitez, who stands 5-foot-4. She doesn't appear to reply. Coleman's girlfriend intervenes and pushes Coleman away from the stranger.
Montiel-Benitez walks away. As she opens the door to leave, she turns and appears to say something. Coleman rushes after her.
Outside the store, silent footage from a camera on a nearby apartment building shows the fatal attack, with the view partially obscured by the leaves of a tree. Montiel-Benitez walks outside, and Coleman charges out behind her and confronts her. Her back is to a brick wall.
Then, Coleman powerfully winds up his right arm and lunges toward Montiel-Benitez. The impact of the punch is blocked by leaves in front of the camera.
Coleman's girlfriend yanks at his white T-shirt and they walk away, leaving Montiel-Benitez lying on the sidewalk.
The back of Montiel-Benitez's head slammed against the brick wall when Coleman punched her. She was conscious when medics rushed her to Inova Alexandria Hospital, an officer testified. She was transferred to Inova Fairfax Hospital with a brain injury. There, she deteriorated and went into a coma. After fighting for her life for 10 days, she died.
Detectives questioned Coleman the day after the attack, and he initially denied ever having any contact with Montiel-Benitez. But after he learned she was badly injured, he confessed to the crime.
Coleman told his lawyer, Jenkins, that he had thought Montiel-Benitez, who had short hair, was a man. He said he couldn't remember how the conflict between them started.
Coleman said when Montiel-Benitez called him the N-word, he "snapped," according to his lawyer. Having the slur used against him was "particularly triggering for him."
"He thought this was a one-punch fight and that was it," Jenkins said. "He had no clue that he had caused the death of someone."
Coleman was charged with murder. He pleaded not guilty, and on April 2, his case went to trial. Jurors heard from Montiel-Benitez's daughter and from Howard, Coleman's girlfriend. Howard called the victim "it" and "he" rather than "she," and defended her boyfriend. She claimed Montiel-Benitez had "bucked" at Coleman like she was going to punch him. She said her boyfriend was defending himself against someone who disrespected him.
"You act like a man, you get treated like a man," she said on a phone call with Coleman after the attack, according to her testimony.
During the trial, Coleman himself apologized to Montiel-Benitez's family.
"I want to start off by saying that I'm extremely sorry for your all loss," he said, reading from a letter he wrote. "It was never my intention, nor was it in my plans, to take your loved one from you all."
A day and a half after the trial began, the jury announced a guilty verdict.
They could have recommended a sentence of 40 years. Instead, they recommended 10 years.
News of the verdict began to gain national attention, with a focus on Coleman's claim that Montiel-Benitez called him the N-word. Jenkins, his lawyer, said he received dozens of emails and calls of support for Coleman, and he is representing him pro bono.
Jenkins said he thought Coleman's account of having a racial slur used against him resonated.
"A lot of people understand how emotionally charged the word is and understand losing your sound mind for a moment when you hear it," he said.
Jenkins previously said that before Coleman was sentenced, he would try to persuade the judge that the sentence was too long.
Alexandria prosecutor David Lord said outside court Thursday that the verdict and sentence fit the crime.
"We have no idea what words were said. We have no reason to believe that racial epithets were used," he said. "But no words, no matter what they are, ever justify violence."