The tragic story of the killing of a son at the hands of his father came to a courtroom conclusion Friday as Duane Lynn Ledford, 49, of Colorado received the maximum allowable sentence of eight year’s incarceration.
Ledford has already spent more than two years in the Graham County Jail awaiting a resolution in his case since the fateful confrontation with his son, Duane Lynn Ledford Jr., 31, on April 15, 2010, in a home about 3.5 miles south of Safford. Ledford Sr.'s original charges included three counts of murder in the second degree and aggravated assault with a weapon.
According to an audio- and video-recorded interview given the morning after the stabbing, Ledford Sr. told investigators he had come to Arizona to help move his parents to Utah and to ask his son to move out of a manufactured home he owned. He said he was upset at the condition of the home.
An argument escalated into a shoving match after Ledford Jr. allegedly threatened to "put a bullet in his (Ledford Sr.'s) head," according to statements from Ledford Sr. The pushing match soon turned to full-blown fighting, according to interviews with Ledford Sr. and several witnesses at the scene, including Ledford Jr.'s three sons, ages 7 through 11, at the time of the incident and an acquaintance of Ledford Sr. who had traveled with him from Colorado.
Ledford Sr. told investigators he pulled out his Swiss Army knife to defend himself because his son would not stop hitting him. Ledford Jr. suffered multiple stab wounds to his face, neck and abdomen. After the stabbing, Ledford Sr. called 9-1-1 and told the operator that he "had to cut" his son in order to defend himself and that someone should get an ambulance there immediately.
Ledford Jr. underwent emergency surgery at the Mt. Graham Regional Medical Center for several hours before he was stabilized. While still in critical condition, he was transferred to the St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix. Ledford Jr. was pronounced brain dead Aug. 20 at St. Joseph's and pronounced dead at 8:55 p.m. the same night.
The charges against Ledford Sr. were amended to a single charge of negligent homicide – a class-four felony – after he and the state compromised to a plea agreement during a marathon five-hour-plus settlement conference. The conference took place between Ledford Sr.'s attorneys Michael B. Bernays of Phoenix and Channen Day of Central and Graham County Chief Deputy County Attorney L. Scott Bennett. Gila County Superior Court Judge Pro Tempore Gary V. Scales served as the mediator.
On Friday, a packed courtroom witnessed Ledford Sr.'s sentencing with family members from both sides of the case pleading the judge for either the stiffest possible penalty or for leniency. Both sides said whatever penalty given would only be the temporal punishment, and Ledford Sr. would meet his ultimate fate in the afterlife.
Ledford Jr.'s sister, brother, mother and stepfather spoke for the prosecution and described the agony the family has been put through and the need for closure.
They all echoed the same desire to see the maximum sentence imposed.
Ledford Jr.'s mother said the haunting images of her son being stabbed to death will be with her grandchildren forever and has imbedded a mental scar that impacts their daily lives.
"This type of psychological damage upon a child is (an) indefensible crime of inhumanity and (is) a life sentence," she said.
Prosecutor Bennett chastised Ledford Sr. for not avoiding a confrontation and instead starting a physical altercation with a person he knew to become combative while intoxicated.
He also pointed out that the Maricopa County Medical Examiner listed eight stab wounds to the victim, and Bennett described that as being excessive of simply self-defense.
"The defendant had an opportunity to walk away from the confrontation," Bennett said.
A violent past
Ledford Sr.'s attorney, Bernays, countered and said a drunk and violent Ledford Jr. started the confrontation with his father, who is stricken with a lame hand.
Bernays described Ledford Jr. as an abusive alcoholic and pointed out a DUI arrest in 2002 in which Ledford Jr. attacked an Arizona Department of Public Safety officer who pulled him over.
In that case, Ledford Jr. attempted to take the officer's gun and threatened repeatedly to kill him. After he was arrested, Ledford Jr. admitted to the officer that he would have felt bad for the officer's children if he had had his gun in his vehicle because he would have killed the officer.
A blood sample from Ledford Jr. taken the night of the incident showed a blood-alcohol content of .16, enough to be charged with extreme DUI.
Additionally, two handguns were found inside his truck, and numerous rifles and shotguns were located inside the residence.
Ledford Sr. addressed the court on his own behalf and said he loved his son and was hurt by the tragedy the same as Ledford Jr.'s mother and the rest of the family.
"If I could take this away, I would," Ledford Sr. said. "He was my son, and I loved him."
After hearing hours of testimony and poring over more than 100 letters from friends and family members, Graham County Superior Court Judge R. Douglas Holt found four mitigators and three aggravators. He gave more weight to the aggravators, however, and sentenced Ledford Sr. to the maximum sentence allowed by the plea agreement of eight years in prison. The sentence structure allowed Holt to sentence between a mitigated sentence of four years to a presumptive sentence of six years and the maximum aggravated sentence of eight years.
Ledford Sr. was given 761 days credit for time served and is eligible for one day off his sentence for every seven served. That means he has less than five more years to serve before he is released from prison.
Bernays said while he was disappointed the court didn't feel the mitigation called for a lighter sentence, he was grateful the sides were able to come to a plea agreement.
"There were high stakes on either side," Bernays said. "He could have walked after a trial – I think the evidence of justification was pretty compelling – or, wrong jury, wrong day, bad job by me; he could have gotten 22 years."
Bennett echoed Bernays' sentiments over the settlement and praised Holt for his sentence.
"This is ultimately just a true tragedy for everyone involved, not only the defendant who had his life altered forever, but the victim and especially the kids who lost their dad," Bennett said. "I think, under the circumstances, it's a very fair sentence, and I'm glad the judge did what he did."
Judge Holt said while the amount of time Ledford Sr. will be spending incarcerated is minimal for a homicide, it was not the end-all of his ultimate punishment or vindication.
"I'm not the final judge," Holt said. "I'm the temporary, intermediate, temporal, mortal judge asked to impose a sanction or consequence for behavior here. But at the end of the day, I'm very certain we all believe in absolute mercy and justice at the hands of an all-knowing God who understands all the facts."