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Originally published Friday, August 13, 2010 at 3:20 PM

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Man sentenced to 30 years in prison for fatal shooting at nightclub

A man who entered an Alford plea last month, agreeing that a jury would likely find him guilty of first-degree murder for the slaying of a hip-hop performer at a Capitol Hill nightclub last year, was sentenced Friday to 30 years in prison.

Seattle Times staff reporter

In sentencing Carlos Bernardez to 30 years in prison Friday for a fatal shooting at a Capitol Hill nightclub last year, the judge lamented the pain that's been caused by the baby-faced defendant.

"This is one more of those overall tragedies that the court sees far too often," King County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Ramsdell said. "One life was lost, and one was changed forever. The implications of what happened are huge for everybody."

He then read from a letter written by the mother of Joseph Ryan, the hip-hop performer also known as 29-E, who died after Bernardez, now 20, opened fire inside Chop Suey on Jan. 4, 2009.

Directing her remarks at Bernardez, Ryan's mother, who lives on the East Coast, wrote: "Don't let prison destroy you," and implored him to make something of his life.

The judge, calling the letter "incredible," said he doubted he could have expressed the same sentiment if he was in her shoes.

Bernardez told the court Friday that he's done "a great amount of soul searching" while in jail and takes full responsibility for the damage he's caused — to his victims and their families, as well as his own. Three generations of Bernardez's family packed the courtroom.

"I just pray the Ryan family can find it in their hearts to forgive me," Bernardez said. "I am sorry."

Bernardez entered an Alford plea last month, agreeing that a jury would likely find him guilty of first-degree murder in Ryan's death and two counts of second-degree assault for wounding promoter Avery Turner, also known as Prezwell Jackson, and James Jones.

According to court documents, Bernardez knocked at the club's back door and requested entry. After speaking to Ryan and the two other men briefly, he opened fire and then fled. Authorities have said a long-standing dispute, which involved an earlier drive-by shooting, was the motive for the shootings.

According to Seattle police, Bernardez told detectives after the shooting that he had been outside Chop Suey with his girlfriend when he was approached by Roger La Branche, another man who had been at the club that night.

"Bernardez said that La Branche handed Bernardez a Colt .45 and told him that he needed help in shooting someone," according to a police report. "Bernardez said that La Branche told him that he would shoot him if he didn't help."

Jones, one of the victims, told police the shootings stemmed from a dispute between him and La Branche, according to a police report. Jones told police La Branche recently had been involved in a drive-by shooting at his apartment, charging documents said.

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Bernardez, who dropped out of school in the 10th grade and became a father at 16, "has matured and gained insight" during the time he's been in jail and has "guilt and remorse" for "harming people who did nothing to him," according to a court report filed by his defense attorney.

The night of the shootings, "Carlos consumed a significant amount of alcohol, marijuana and Ecstasy," the report says. "Carlos does not offer this as an excuse but as an explanation as to how he was susceptible to act upon the demand of others."

Though La Branche, 27, was considered an accomplice in the shooting and initially was charged with murder and assault, prosecutors later dropped those charges because of insufficient evidence, said Dan Donohoe, a spokesman for King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg.

La Branche pleaded guilty in January to a drug charge and was sentenced to 12 months in jail; he is serving his sentence on work release, court records say.

According to charging papers, police found 45 grams of cocaine, nearly 300 Ecstasy and OxyContin pills, 89 grams of marijuana, a 9-mm handgun and $7,000 in cash in La Branche's rental car, which was parked across the street from Chop Suey. He does not have any prior felony convictions.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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