February 17, 2018 9:59:56 PM
A man sentenced to life in prison for robbing and sexually assaulting two Sprint Mart employees three years ago told the court he'd only committed the crimes because he was on drugs and "the devil took him over."
A Lowndes County jury convicted Autravious Gaston, 36, of two counts each of sexual battery, armed robbery and kidnapping Thursday, along with grand larceny and possession of a weapon by a convicted felon. During the two-day trial during, witnesses, including two sexual assault victims, told how on Feb. 11, 2015, Gaston stole a car, drove to Sprint Mart on Military Road and robbed it at gunpoint, forcing the two employees into the back room and sexually assaulting them.
He then forced one of the victims to get in the car with him and drove her to West Point, stopping several times and assaulting her again, the victim testified.
"I apologize for anything that happened," Gaston said at his sentencing hearing Friday morning. "I'm terribly, terribly sorry. I didn't mean for any of this to happen. I had a bad drug problem (that) took me over."
Assistant District Attorney Lindsay Clemons, who prosecuted the case, said she was "flabbergasted" by Gaston's statement.
"Aside from a capital murder, I have never had a case as heinous as this," she said.
Gaston "retraumatized two women" by not pleading guilty, Clemons said, and she called his excuse of having a drug problem "an insult" to people with drug problems. She asked the court ensure he spent the rest of his life in prison "to insure that no one ever, ever again will be put in this position of confronting this man when 'the devil' takes over."
Judge Jim Kitchens sentenced Gaston to five years in prison for grand larceny; life in prison for two counts of armed robbery and one count of kidnapping; 30 years in prison for kidnapping; 30 years in prison for each count of sexual battery; and 10 years in prison for possession of a weapon by a convicted felon. All but the two life sentences for armed robbery will be consecutive.
'The devil ... took my life over'
Kitchens' sentencing followed several minutes of back and forth between him and Gaston, who repeatedly emphasized his drug problem and said he never meant to hurt anyone. He added he wanted to turn his life around and start helping people and said he wished he had testified in his own defense.
Kitchens pointed out Gaston had the right to a trial but added he thought, given the amount of evidence, he didn't know why Gaston elected not to plead guilty.
"Did you not think what you were putting the victims through?" he said.
Gaston said he'd elected to go to trial because some of the statements made about him stealing the car weren't true.
"That's the least of your problems," Kitchens replied.
Kitchens said he will not punish people for exercising their right to a fair trial, but said he was looking at the seriousness of the crime -- which 40 years ago would have been death eligible, he said -- along with what the victims wanted and whether Gaston showed any remorse.
"The best thing you had going for you, Mr. Gaston, was that you did not kill these ladies," he said.
He added when one of the sexual assault victims testified, the entire bench was shaking.
"You forced her to talk about things that people should never have to talk about in public," he said.
At that moment, Gaston asked to speak again, saying he didn't plea because he was young, naive and scared. He said the time he'd spent in jail since his arrest had been the worst time of his life.
"The devil ... came," Gaston said. "He took my life over."
The longer Gaston spoke, the more the audience in the courtroom began shifting in their seats and whispering to each other. One of the victims who had come in to watch the hearing was shaking.
Kitchens seemed unsympathetic to Gaston's statements.
"What it seemed to be is you did it to terrify these ladies one more time," he said.
He added he'd worked with plenty of drug addicts before and that if Gaston had accepted responsibility for his actions, Kitchens would have listened. Instead, he said, Gaston showed no remorse. He also pointed out that there seemed to be "escalation" in Gaston's behavior, given that he was convicted of an armed robbery in 1999. No one was harmed in that case, Kitchens said. In this case, two people were.
"My concern is that next time, you won't leave a witness," he said.
Still, he said, he believed Gaston -- he'd seen many people "destroy their lives with drugs." Gaston began to cry.
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