Decatur, IL – An Illinois man who fatally shot his two-year-old nephew while playing “cops and robbers” was sentenced to two years of probation on Wednesday.
Macon County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Geisler said that Zachary Pherigo, 18, had expressed remorse for killing the toddler and that his greatest punishment would be having to live with the consequences of what he had done, the Herald & Review reported.
The incident occurred at approximately 8:40 a.m. on Oct. 16, 2017, while Pherigo was babysitting his nephew, two-year-old Justin Lee Murphy, Jr., according to the Herald & Review.
Pherigo, who was 17 at the time, claimed that he found a .45 caliber semiautomatic handgun near a dumpster the day prior, and that he pointed the weapon at his nephew as they were playing “cops and robbers,” police said.
He aimed the weapon at Justin and told him not to move, then pulled the trigger and shot the toddler in the back.
Pherigo said he did not realize the gun was loaded.
According to investigators, Pherigo said that he carried the baby into the house, then tried to stop his bleeding using a blanket.
He ultimately left the dying child and went outside, where he retrieved the weapon and shell casing.
Pherigo stashed the gun in a cabinet and placed the casing into his pocket.
Prosecutors initially charged Pherigo as an adult with first-degree murder, the Associated Press reported.
That charge was dropped in March, after Pherigo pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, aggravated discharge of a firearm, and obstruction of justice for lying to police earlier in the investigation, the Herald & Review reported.
As part of the plea deal, prosecutors also agreed not to seek a sentence enhancement for use of a firearm.
After he entered his guilty pleas, Pherigo waved to his family members as he was led out of the courtroom.
On Wednesday, Pherigo’s mother, Christina Pherigo, told the court that her son suffered from an intellectual disability and that he was very close to Justin.
It was not immediately clear if Pherigo has an actual diagnosed disability, or if his mother was just expressing her opinion about his intelligence.
Assistant Macon County State’s Attorney Kate Kurtz urged the court to impose some period of prison time for the killing, but noted that Justin’s parents had approved of the plea agreement.
Geisler said he was willing to “take a chance” on Pherigo by allowing him to serve his sentence on probation, the Herald & Review reported.
He was sentenced to just 48 months of probation for aggravated discharge of a firearm.
Geisler also sentenced Pherigo to 180 days in jail, but gave him credit for the 235 days he had been locked up prior to sentencing, so he won’t serve any additional time in custody for the murder.
Due to “one act, one crime” legal requirements, he was not separately sentenced for involuntary manslaughter, because the conduct that was the basis of both convictions was identical.
Geisler sentenced Pherigo to 30 months of probation for the obstruction offense and ordered that the sentence run concurrently with the previously imposed probation term.
He also ordered Pherigo to complete a mental health evaluation.