2 Lawrence men sentenced in 2021 shooting during a drug deal that left a Wichita man dead

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

Javier Romero and Andrel Spates are pictured during their joint sentencing hearing on April 10, 2024, in Douglas County District Court.

Two Lawrence men were sentenced to prison time on Wednesday — one to more than six years and another to just over 17 years — in connection with a fatal shooting that took place in 2021 during a drug deal.

The men, Javier Isidro Romero, 20, and Andrel Darnell Spates Jr., 22, both of Lawrence, were each originally charged with one count of murder in the first degree in connection with the death of 21-year-old Christian Willis, of Wichita, on Sept. 8, 2021, in the 1500 block of Kentucky Street. Additionally, both men were charged with felony distribution of marijuana, and Spates was charged with felony possession of a firearm.

They were scheduled to go to trial in January, but each entered a no contest plea to a lesser crime, as the Journal-World reported. Spates pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter, and Romero pleaded no contest to murder in the second degree.

On Wednesday, both men’s attorneys — Thomas Bath, representing Spates, and Adam Zentner, representing Romero — argued that the circumstances of the shooting warranted a more lenient sentence than what the state’s guidelines called for.

As the Journal-World has reported, Spates had argued in court filings that he shot Willis to defend Romero after Willis pulled a gun on Romero during the sale. And Bath and Zentner argued Wednesday that reports from police suggested that Willis had intended to rob Spates and Romero.

photo by: Chris Conde/Journal-World

A diagram of the crime scene where Christian Willis was shot to death created by the Lawrence Police Department shown to the court on April 10, 2024.

Zentner, in particular, argued that Romero had a lesser role in the incident. He said that Romero had not helped organize the drug deal; instead, he said Romero was hanging out at Spates’ residence on the day of the deal and Spates asked him to hand over the marijuana to Willis. Zentner also said that the gun that Romero had with him during the incident was given to him just then by Spates as he was going outside to hand over the drugs, in case something happened. Zentner also said that Romero had no prior offenses that would affect his sentence.

Judge Stacey Donovan said that the argument that Romero had a lesser role had some truth to it.

“The court finds that is true to an extent,” she said.

She then sentenced Romero to 75 months, or six years and three months, in prison. That’s a departure from the state guidelines, which would have prescribed a sentence of between 109 months and 493 months in prison, or 9 to 41 years, depending on the person’s criminal history.

While Zentner was requesting a shorter prison term for his client, Bath was requesting probation on Spates’ behalf. But Senior Assistant District Attorney David Greenwald argued against it, pointing to Spates’ juvenile record. Seven days before the 2021 shooting occurred, Greenwald said, Spates was convicted of two felony charges in a juvenile case in connection with an armed robbery.

Donovan denied the request for probation and sentenced Spates to 206 months, or just over 17 years, in prison. That is toward the upper end of the sentencing range; based on criminal history, someone convicted of voluntary manslaughter could face between 4.5 and 20.5 years under state sentencing guidelines.

Prior to being sentenced, Spates apologized to the court, but maintained that what he did was to protect Romero.

“I’m sorry this had to happen but I didn’t see any other way,” Spates said.

Romero also apologized before his sentence was read, addressing Willis’ family in his remarks. Willis’ family was not present at the hearing.

“My deepest sorrows for my role in this. I apologize to Willis’ family,” Romero said. “Christian had a son the same age as my own.”

Romero also said he would work to better himself while in prison in an effort to be a good father when he is released.

left to right, Javier Romero, and his attorney Adam Zentner, and Andrel Spates, and his attorney Thomas Bath, are pictured on April 10, 2024, in Douglas County District Court.


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