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NY bail reform sets free Navy vet accused of shooting, killing girlfriend

A gavel. (TNS/Released)

An Onondaga County judge had no choice Thursday but to release a man who has admitted to shooting and killing his girlfriend inside an apartment they shared with the victim’s 4-year-old daughter.

Darien Shellman, who has described the shooting as accidental, was released because he is not facing a crime that allows for jail before trial under the state’s new bail reform law.

State Supreme Court Justice Gordon Cuffy had previously considered the bail in Shellman’s case in April 2019 and ruled that $75,000 cash or $150,000 bond was appropriate. But that was before the new bail law. Now, he had to release Shellman.

“It’s pretty clear this is not an offense that qualifies for cash bail to be set,” defense lawyer Ed Klein said. “It’s required by the new bail laws that Mr. Shellman be released.”

“At this point, the court has no discretion,” prosecutor Jarrett Woodfork acknowledged, noting that the judge had felt in the past that bail was appropriate.

Woodfork said he had no standing to oppose release under the new law, but added: “I do not, have not, will not think that is appropriate.”

Cuffy noted that Shellman had no prior criminal record and that he was honorably discharged from the military. He ruled it would not be unreasonable to order Shellman to pretrial release, which allows limited supervision outside jail prior to trial.

Key here is that Shellman, 25, is not accused of intentionally shooting his girlfriend, Sarah Tombs, 22; nor is he accused of possessing an illegal gun. Either of those factors — considered violent — could have allowed a judge to keep him locked up until trial. (The new bail law requires release for virtually all non-violent felonies.)

Instead, Shellman was charged with unintentional (reckless) manslaughter in the April 14, 2019 shooting at 325 Village Drive. He also had a legal gun license, authorities have said. Reckless killing — officially second-degree manslaughter — is not considered a violent crime, and therefore requires a defendant’s release until trial under the new bail law.

If convicted, Shellman faces up to 5 to 15 years in prison.

After the shooting, Shellman called 911 and waited for police to arrive. He cooperated, turned over his guns and his permits were revoked, Klein has said.

Shellman is a Navy veteran who was honorably discharged in 2016. He’d been lifeguarding and coaching at the YMCA since then. His girlfriend, Tombs, was a security guard at Destiny USA. The two had met while attending Bryant & Stratton together. They’d been living in an apartment together near Shop City for more than a year, Klein has said. Tombs’ young daughter lived with them.

The day of the shooting, Shellman was planning on driving Tombs to work.

Shellman routinely carried his legally possessed weapon at the mall, something that Tombs didn’t approve of, lawyers have said. Though she didn’t like it, Tombs had “consented and allowed that on previous occasions,” Klein has said.

In a police statement, Shellman said he had retrieved the unloaded, registered Smith & Wesson MP .45-caliber handgun from a safe inside the bedroom that he shared with Tombs. He took the unloaded firearm and sat on the bed next to his girlfriend who had just woken up, according to the felony complaint.

Shellman loaded a magazine containing ammunition into the handgun and “racked the slide,” or charged the firearm, which loaded the ammunition into the gun, according to the complaint.

Shellman told Syracuse police that he “inadvertently disengaged” the gun’s safety and had his finger on the trigger when Tombs “abruptly grabbed” the gun. With the gun still in Shellman’s grasp, one round discharged and fatally struck Tombs in her head, the complaint said.

Woodfork, the prosecutor, had previously noted that a life was lost in arguing for a high bail in the case. Holding a loaded gun so close to his girlfriend’s head was criminally reckless, he said.

Even Klein, the defense lawyer, had been arguing for lower bail — not an outright release — which may have seemed an unrealistic argument under the old bail law.

After court Thursday, Klein characterized bail reform as a success in this case: someone like Shellman didn’t belong in jail in the first place.

Shellman will go back to the downtown jail and collect his belongings before being released within the next few hours.


© 2020 Syracuse Media Group