By Rich McKay
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Former National Basketball Association player Javaris Crittenton pleaded guilty on Wednesday in the 2011 death of an Atlanta woman, admitting he fired an automatic rifle in a drive-by shooting but saying he never meant to kill anyone.
Crittenton, 27, pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter with a weapon and aggravated assault with a firearm. As part of the plea agreement, prosecutors dropped a murder charge and a judge sentenced him to 23 years in prison and 17 years of probation.
Opening statements had been expected on Wednesday in the murder case against Crittenton and his cousin, Douglas Gamble, who were accused of gunning down Julian Jones, 22, a mother of four, in August 2011.
Crittenton, a point guard who played two seasons in the NBA after being drafted by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2007, said he took the plea deal because it was “time to be a man.”
Sobbing, he claimed he intended only to scare someone and was heartbroken to learn he had killed Jones. Prosecutors said the shooting was gang-related and retaliation against a person Crittenton believed had robbed him.
"I apologize from the depths of my heart," Crittenton said. "I'm not a murderer. I made a mistake, one that I wish I could take back."
Judge Shawn Ellen LaGrua angrily interrupted Crittenton and chastised him for calling the shooting an accident.
Crittenton and Gamble both admitted in court that Gamble drove a rented black Tahoe SUV while Crittenton fired an automatic rifle at least three times from the back seat.
Gamble pleaded guilty on Wednesday to aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. He was sentenced to three years in prison and 17 years of probation.
Jones’ mother, June Woods, cried as she described the pain of losing her only daughter.
"My daughter was robbed of her life," Woods said. "The only way her children will know their mom now is through stories and pictures."
Crittenton, who hung his head through much of the hearing, turned once to the family and said, "I’m sorry."
Prosecutors said Crittenton sports a Crips gang tattoo on his belly but he denied being a member, saying he only hung out with members of the gang socially in Los Angeles.
(Reporting by Rich McKay; Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Bill Trott)