Killer of former pro baseball player Danny Clyburn of Lancaster sentenced to 15 years

January 10, 2014 

— The lifelong friend who shot and killed former Major League Baseball player Danny Clyburn Jr. in 2012 was sentenced to 15 years in prison Friday after pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter.

Derrick McIlwain, 38, who shot Clyburn on Feb. 7, 2012, during an argument, was originally charged with murder. Prosecutors and McIlwain’s defense attorney negotiated a plea to the reduced charge, citing McIlwain’s claim of self-defense and the fact that Clyburn, 37, had marijuana in his system when he was killed.

Alisha Clyburn was furious with the sentence, saying McIlwain should have spent life in prison for killing her brother.

“That 15 years is not worth a person’s life,” she told McIlwain in court. “My brother didn’t have any gun. You should have been a man.”

Assistant public defender William Frick said his client feared for his life against the bigger, stronger Clyburn, who had “made it out of the ’hood and out of Lancaster.”

“Unfortunately he had a firearm, a gun,” Frick told Circuit Court Judge Brian Gibbons. “But (McIlwain) didn’t get out of the ’hood. He didn’t get out of Lancaster. A lot of people carry small pistols around the ’hood in Lancaster for protection. I don’t like it, but it is a fact of life.”

After escaping “the ’hood,” after playing big league baseball in Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park, Clyburn’s death will be marked by three numbers – 1, 1 and 15.

One gun, one bullet, 15 years.

Not No. 69 – the number on his jersey.

Nobody from ESPN or Sports Illustrated or The Sporting News showed up Friday at the Lancaster County Courthouse. There were no TV crews there at all.

Only a judge and lawyers and a crying family were there for the last court hearing following the killing of a hometown hero for no reason other than a guy he grew up with – a guy with no job and no permanent home, but plenty of crimes under his belt – thought he should have given back to the ’hood some of what he had earned through hard work.

McIlwain expected Clyburn to buy him drinks and more. They argued that night, and Clyburn pushed McIlwain while saying he owed McIlwain nothing.

So McIlwain shot Clyburn – once in the heart – with an illegal gun.

A statement McIlwain gave police after his arrest was read in court Friday. It stunned people in the court – even some who had heard it at previous hearings – with its harsh reality and warped rationale.

“When he played,” McIlwain told police, “Clyburn never did anything for anybody in the ’hood.”

Clyburn’s cousin, Mark Anthony, who also played professional baseball in the 1990s, said Clyburn’s baseball success was earned through hard work and determination – and he owed nobody but his family anything.

“It was not his obligation to take care of you,” Anthony told McIlwain in court. “His obligation was to his family. And you took that away with a gun. With a gun, you took it all.”

Five-tool prospect

The shooting happened in a tiny house where nobody actually lived. It was a party spot where some men drank and played cards. It is just a few doors down from where Clyburn grew up.

Clyburn, who lived in California, was only in Lancaster that day in 2012 to visit his father, sister and two children, who live with his ex-wife.

He earned, at most, $200,000 a year when playing in the majors – but most years earned far less. That money went to his family.

As a young player in the minor leagues, Clyburn was considered a great prospect. He was the most valuable player of the Triple-A All-Star Game. He was what baseball people call a “five-tool player” – he could hit for average, hit for power, run, field and throw. He was considered a can’t-miss player who one day would make millions.

But he didn’t.

Like a lot of hot young players, the major league curveball was his nemesis. Clyburn hit four home runs in 41 major league games. His career later ended in the minors.

In his final game, Clyburn played outfield for a Yankees minor league affiliate in Brooklyn alongside Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson – the all-time stolen-base king.

Clyburn was trying to find glory. Henderson was trying to reclaim glory.

Neither did.

So Clyburn’s last night on earth was spent drinking with a longtime felon and others in the ’hood. According to toxicology tests, Clyburn had drugs in his system.

McIlwain claimed after the killing that he should face no charges under South Carolina’s “stand your ground” law, but a judge shot that down.

Sixth Circuit Solicitor Doug Barfield conceded that he had to offer a deal in the case because a jury in a murder trial could have agreed that McIlwain had acted in self-defense – and McIlwain might have never been held accountable for the killing.

Another number

Danny Clyburn’s mother died when he was a kid. His father, Danny Clyburn Sr., worked his whole life in tough labor jobs, and even after retirement had to go back to work as a school custodian.

People who do not work, but instead shoot and kill, can call where Danny Clyburn Sr. has lived all his life “the ’hood,” but he sure worked for what he has. The ’hood is his home, and he apologizes to no one for trying to help his son succeed – to escape a place where guns and drugs often rule the night.

Clyburn has attended every one of the court hearings about the killing of his son. On Friday, he spoke quietly and with dignity about getting through the anger of such a senseless killing.

He said he “doesn’t know all of what happened that night,” but he does know that his only son is dead from a gunshot.

There is another number attached to the death of Danny Clyburn Jr.

Zero.

In a cold church cemetery about 20 miles outside Lancaster, the ballplayer who was cheered and given ovations is buried. He rests to this day in a grave marked by a small, metal sign with only his faded name on it.

Nothing in that tiny cemetery to trumpet his accomplishments.

Nothing to show that Danny Clyburn played on the same field as Derek Jeter and Reggie Jackson and Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio and Babe Ruth.

Not even a headstone.

Andrew Dys •  803-329-4065 •  adys@heraldonline.com

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