Alabama fan guilty in tailgating USC football fan death gets 5 years

jmonk@thestate.comFebruary 6, 2013 

— Curtis Simms, an Alabama football fan involved in an ill-fated confrontation with a University of South Carolina fan after a 2010 game, will spend the next five years in state prison.

Judge Diane Goodstein on Tuesday sentenced the 27-year-old Columbia man to 10 years in prison – suspended to five years. A half-hour earlier, a Richland County jury found Simms guilty of breach of peace of a high and aggravated nature – a seldom-used common law charge that carries a maximum sentence of 10 years.

“I want to apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Gasque for the loss of their son,” Simms said, sobbing so much he could hardly speak just before sentencing, as he turned and faced the family of Allen Martin Gasque, 20, of Marion. Gasque was run over and crushed by a pickup after Simms punched him in the face in a tailgating area near Columbia’s Williams-Brice Stadium not long after an Alabama-South Carolina football game.

Also weeping was Regina Gasque, the dead youth’s mother, who asked the judge before sentencing to give Simms the maximum punishment.

“Martin left our house Friday night, so excited about going to one of most exciting football games in Columbia,” Gasque said, as her husband of 31 years, Rusty, wept in the courtroom along with 15 or so relatives and friends of their family. “Before he left, he slid on into my bed, smiled that grin of his, and acted like he had all the time in the world for his mom.

“He told me and his dad that he loved us, and he walked out the door. Martin and I were texting all the next day, all during the game. Then the phone rings, and a deputy is telling me Martin has been in an accident. ... I knew it wasn’t good.”

Gasque recounted her son’s attributes – the joy he brought the family, his excellence at baseball on the Coker College team, his zest for go-karts, his future as a teacher – and “how he had the most precious smile you can imagine. ... His face will never light up our house again, or our hearts.

“We as parents now cry every day,” she said. “We as parents have to go to the cemetery to be with our child. All his hopes and dreams are gone, and our hopes and dreams for him are also gone. The breath has been taken from us.”

Simms’ apology was his first statement during the six-day trial. He did not take the stand in his own defense.

In a victory for Simms, the jury – which deliberated almost six hours over two days – found him not guilty of involuntary manslaughter. That charge carries a five-year maximum sentence and would have meant Simms bears legal responsibility for Gasque’s death.

If Simms had been found guilty of both charges, Goodstein could have sentenced him to a total of 15 years.

Football fans clash

The trial, in which more than 20 witnesses testified, opened a window into the tailgating world of fan mania and excessive drinking by some tailgaters who never go inside the stadium to watch the game.

Undisputed trial evidence stated that both Gasque and Simms tailgated with friends in separate areas and drank alcohol liberally on Oct. 9, 2010, when underdog USC beat then-No. 1-ranked Alabama. The two men did not know each other before their 30-second chance meeting.

According to his autopsy, Gasque had a 0.23 blood alcohol content – three times what is legal evidence for impairment. In a statement to police shortly after Gasque’s death, Simms admitted to drinking between 10 and 15 beers and three liquor-laced Jell-O shots that day.

According to testimony, Gasque was a passenger in a four-door pickup with oversized tires driven by a friend, Adam Paxton. As they drove along Shop Road in highly congested vehicle and foot traffic just after the game, Gasque was calling out his window, razzing Alabama fans and cheering with USC fans.

While stopped in traffic near The Gates condominiums, a block or so from the State Fairgrounds, Gasque exchanged words with Simms, a passenger in another four-door pickup that was trying to move into the traffic flowing along Shop Road. Simms got out of his pickup, wearing a red Alabama shirt and an Alabama baseball hat.

More than 10 witnesses gave slightly different versions of what happened next. Some said Gasque exited his pickup to face Simms, who is 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 285 pounds. Gasque was 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighed 168 pounds. Others said Gasque stayed in his pickup.

But nearly all witnesses agreed that Simms hit Gasque, first either inside or outside the vehicle, either once or several times, and all agreed that Gasque didn’t try to hit Simms. Once hit, Gasque collapsed to the roadside, apparently unconscious and rolled under the pickup his friend was driving.

Paxton, then 20, decided to turn his car wheel right and drive off Shop Road. As Paxton did so, moving slowly, his oversized right rear wheel went over Gasque’s chest and head. Gasque died quickly.

‘We won’t tolerate this’

During the trial, Simms’ defense lawyers said Paxton – not Simms – was to blame for Gasque’s death since he should have not veered off Shop Road without making sure where Gasque was.

Defense lawyer Johnny Gasser also portrayed the death as a freak accident and told the jury that if Paxton didn’t foresee that his pickup might kill Gasque that night, then how could Simms?

Prosecutor Luck Campbell – assisted by prosecutors Joanna McDuffie and Meghan Walker – argued that without Simms’ punch, Gasque would still be alive. Campbell also reminded the jury that immediately after Gasque was crushed, Simms fled the scene, peeling off his Alabama shirt and hat. However, Simms did return to the scene within a minute or so and tell an officer that he had been involved in the death.

Campbell repeatedly stressed how much bigger Simms was than Gasque.

“This wasn’t a fight – this was an assault,” she said.

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson said late Tuesday he would not question the jury’s decision to acquit Simms on involuntary manslaughter.

“But we made the appropriate decision to bring that charge,” Johnson said. He said the judge’s five-year prison sentence on the breach of peace charge “sends a message that we won’t tolerate this kind of thing.”

Gasser, meanwhile, said “our primary goal” was to get Simms acquitted of the manslaughter charge.

“Curtis never felt he was legally responsible and accountable for Gasque’s death,” Gasser said.

Simms’ prison time will be followed by a three-year probation period. During the probation period, he has to complete substance abuse and anger management counseling.

According to the S.C. Department of Corrections, Simms may be eligible for early release in about three years, depending on his behavior in prison and work credits he compiles. Defense attorney Gregg Harris had asked for probation, stressing Simms’ good work ethic, good job prospect and lack of a criminal record.

“There are no winners in this,” Gasser told reporters.

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