Crime

Defendant in fatal Lower Keys hit and run already sentenced to 15 years in federal case

Already sentenced to 15 years in federal custody, a Big Coppitt Key man now faces local prosecution for a deadly hit-and-run crash in May 2013.

Joseph B. Symington, 33, is accused of driving a pickup truck that struck and killed Niemand Vonhasberg, 50, who was walking along U.S. 1 near mile marker 5.5.

A status hearing on the local charges, filed in August 2013, was scheduled for Monday in Monroe County Circuit Court.

Prosecution was delayed because Symington was being held in federal custody to answer charges of  being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm stemming from a November 2012 arrest in Hialeah.

In that case, Hialeah detectives working an auto-theft investigation found a loaded .38-caliber revolver in Symington's jacket pocket when the officers questioned suspects spotted in a parked car.

Charges under a federal "armed career criminal" law were filed in June 2013. Last October, Symington pleaded guilty on the weapons charge.

Defense attorneys argued against having Symington classified as a violent career criminal, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years. Some of Symington's previous convictions did not rise to the level of violent offenses, they contended.

U.S. District Judge William Zloch ruled against the defense and imposed the 15 years on Jan. 22.

"I'm sorry for my mistakes and I would just like to put it behind me," Symington told the judge. "It is what it is."

Federal public defenders filed a July motion seeking to have the sentence reduced. No court action has occurred since.

Symington has been arrested numerous times in Monroe County. He served three years in state prison, from November 2006 to September 2009, on convictions of fleeing a law enforcement officer with no regard for safety, driving with a suspended or revoked license, and aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

From 2001 to 2006, he was arrested in Monroe County 13 times. Counts include driving under the influence, DUI causing property damage, leaving the scene of an accident, and driving with a suspended license.

Subsequent charges include several violations of probation, possession with intent to sell cocaine, marijuana possession, smuggling contraband into jail, aggravated battery and being a "habitual offender" for repeatedly being caught driving with a revoked license.

Assistant State Attorney Christine Poist, who is prosecuting charges from Vonhasberg's death in May 2013, arranged to have Symington returned for trial.

Symington is accused of being at the wheel of a 1996 GMC Sonoma pickup truck that struck Vonhasberg from behind as the homeless man walked along the northbound shoulder of U.S. 1. Vonhasberg apparently had been living in the Keys for at least four years.

Symington is accused of driving across the median and fleeing south. Investigators later received a tip that led to the pickup truck.

A bond of $500,000 was imposed for the hit-and-run charges but Symington apparently cannot be released while serving the federal sentence.

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