A judge on Friday sentenced the driver in a hit-and-run that killed a University of Florida student to six years in prison with 15 years of felony probation and took away his driver’s license for the next decade.
Alachua County Sheriff’s deputies immediately took Joshua Alexander Figueroa, 32, of Gainesville into custody. Figueroa had missed a sentencing hearing earlier this week because his lawyer said he had been mysteriously hospitalized since Sunday.
His hospital stay wasn’t discussed Friday in court except when the judge asked for assurances that no procedures or medication were affecting his willingness to enter a plea to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in a death.
Figueroa killed Maggie Paxton, 18, of Jacksonville and fled the scene the night of Dec. 9, 2020, after police said Paxton, walking alone, had crossed one of the busiest streets near campus at a dark intersection outside the crosswalks and against the light.
The accident was one of the driving forces behind decisions by the city and university to overhaul pedestrian safety near campus, including lowering the speed limit to 25 mph, installing speed humps and ticketing hundreds of drivers during a police crackdown.
Alachua County Circuit Judge Phillip Pena explained to Figueroa that his sentence exceeded the minimum of four years in prison. The judge had earlier rejected a plea agreement between prosecutors and Figueroa’s defense lawyer of four years in prison, 10 years of probation and the loss of his license for three years. The maximum sentence would be 30 years in prison.
“Every case, every crime is a label, it’s what’s underneath that label of that crime that dictates what should happen in a case,” Pena said. “And from the court’s perspective, this was not a minimum case.”
The judge said Figueroa also must complete 120 hours of community service in a trauma center or hospital, participate in a victim impact panel or driver improvement course, and pay a fine of $3,429.
Scores of people watched the hearing via Zoom, with about 20 more friends and family on one side of the courtroom and only six seated behind Figueroa. Before the hearing started, Figueroa sat motionless at the table next to his attorney, Robert Rush, alternating between holding his head in his hands and staring at the table with his hands in his lap. Figueroa only spoke to the judge with the occasional “Yes, sir” and “No, sir.”
State prosecutor Deborah Rothenberg reaffirmed to the judge how much support Paxton’s family has received over the 18 months, pointing out the large crowd behind her in the courtroom.
“The victim’s family and support are here,” Rothenberg said. “Getting through this today means a lot to them, but there’s no amount of time that would satisfy them or bring Maggie back.”
Pena read from what he described as a “mountain of statements” sent to him by friends and family of Paxton.
“A fierce competitor, vibrant, intelligent, kind, unapologetically herself, passionate, a caring spirit, a high achiever, empathetic, insightful, warm, enthusiastic, funny, a ray of sunshine and a contagious laugh – those are just a few of the adjectives and descriptions,” Pena said.
Pena said he hoped the sentence brings them some kind of change. Figueroa stood motionless with his hands behind his back.
Another officer entered the courtroom as the judge was finishing, and Figueroa was patted down, handcuffed and escorted out.
Figueroa’s family tried to stay in the courtroom to say goodbye until Figueroa was taken away, but a court officer ordered them to leave as his father, Miguel Figueroa, expressed frustration.
Paxton’s father, James Paxton of Jacksonville, said he and his wife believed police might never find the driver who killed their daughter. Police tracked down Figueroa’s BMW hidden at his father’s body shop within days of the crash but did not arrest Figueroa until seven months later.
Police said Figueroa called friends in the hours after the accident, including a conversation with a local drinking buddy, Marc Painton. Police on June 30 interviewed Painton, who told them that Figueroa met him later that night and acknowledged he had hit “something or someone” crossing the street and did not stop. Neither of them called the police. Officers arrested Figueroa the day after their conversation with Painton.
“It took a little while, but we’re patient, and our faith tells us to be patient and look towards God,” James Paxton said. “Mr. Figueroa’s going to have a tough six years.”
James Paxton said he feared Figueroa would have been sentenced to four years in prison.
“If they asked Jim Paxton what his sentence would be, it would be that we wouldn’t see him again,” he said. “Now we have to celebrate Maggie’s life.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can donate to support our students here.