Shooter of slain 5-year-old passenger sentencing pushed to Thursday

Jessie Hughes Jr. (right) listens as his attorney, Gary Conwell, spoke in Shawnee County District Court. Deputy District Attorney sits to the left. (WIBW/Steve Fry)
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TOPEKA, Kan. (WIBW) -- Apparently perturbed that none of his family had been notified he was to be sentenced on Wednesday, the defendant who first pleaded guilty in July to the fatal shooting of a 5-year-old vehicle passenger in 2015 told the judge he intended to pursue his motion to withdraw his no contest plea.

But following a short break outside the courtroom, 23-year-old Jesse Dean Dashawn Hughes Jr. had changed his mind, saying he wanted to go forward with sentencing him.

Shawnee County District Court Judge David Debenham clarified the status of the Hughes case: Hughes' motion to withdraw his no contest plea in July was withdrawn by Hughes after the court break on Wednesday. The Hughes sentencing was re-scheduled to Thursday at 4 p.m.

Defense attorney Gary Conwell said he and Hughes would phone members of Hughes' family to notify them of the Thursday sentencing so they could attend. On Wednesday, the roughly one dozen spectators sitting in the courtroom were relatives or supporters of 5-year-old Lily Coats-Nichols, the victim.

No supporters of Hughes were in the courtroom.

Conwell, who was recently assigned as Hughes' defense attorney, apologized for not contacting the Hughes family about the scheduled hearing on Wednesday.

Supporters of the victim agreed to the rescheduled Thursday sentencing date.

Hughes has a criminal history of B, which means he has two person felony convictions in his criminal history, according to Hughes' plea agreement.

If Hughes is sentenced to consecutive convictions for the three offenses, the standard sentences would total 38 years and five months. If he received three concurrent sentences, the voluntary manslaughter would be 18 years, the criminal discharge of a firearm would be 18 years, and the aggravated assault would be 29 months, all based on the B criminal history.

Hughes originally was charged with felony first-degree murder in the July 6, 2015, shooting death of 5-year-old Lily Coats-Nichols, who died several days later.

On July 25, 2019, Hughes pleaded no contest to voluntary manslaughter in the shooting death of Coats-Nichols; no contest to criminal discharge of a firearm; and no contest to aggravated assault (use of a deadly weapon), court records said.

In an earlier three-page handwritten letter to the judge, Hughes said he didn't kill anyone and called himself an "innocent man."

The shooting of Coats-Nichols’ was reported to Topeka police at 11:38 p.m. on July 6, 2015, at S.E. Golf Park and Fremont.

During a preliminary hearing in June 2018, the child’s mother, Raven Amber Coats, testified that soon after hearing a series of gunshots, she was asked whether she and Lily were okay.

“We are,” she recalled saying.

Coats opened her car door to check Lily.

“Lily! Lily, wake up!” Coats said. “She was unresponsive” and appeared to be “sleeping.”

After briefly trying CPR on the child, she was driven to a hospital. Coats-Nichols died July 9, 2015, at a Topeka hospital.

According to the child's mother, she was driving west on S.E. Golf Park, then turned north onto S.E. Fremont and had passed a parked vehicle when a southbound vehicle passed the Coats car and the parked car.

Coats heard six to eight gunshots behind her car, she testified.

Raven Coats testified her daughter was properly harnessed in her child seat when she was struck by gunfire. Raven Coats and her boyfriend weren’t wounded.

Topeka police found 15 shell casings fired from a 9mm handgun in the intersection of Golf Park and Fremont.