Aug. 25—A man who pleaded guilty to fatally shooting a 23-year-old woman outside a St. Paul nightclub last year was sentenced Tuesday.
James Jones Fields, 36, of St. Paul will serve seven years in prison and about four years on supervised release. He was given credit for 373 days of time served.
It was not the outcome the family, who requested the harshest sentence possible, had hoped for, nor what Ramsey County District Judge Paul Yang said he wanted.
However, Yang said the case was lacking strong evidence as no one in the crowd outside the Lamplighter Lounge on June 13, 2020, had come forward to testify that Fields was indeed the shooter who killed Nia Black when he fired at her car.
"As much as I want to give you the maximum jail time I can, I have to do it within the bounds of the law" Yang told Fields. "I'm going to honor the plea agreement that you made. You're going to serve your time. But I hope that you will never forget Nia Black."
A MOTHER'S HEARTBREAK
Fields, wearing a blue jumpsuit and face mask, sat with his head down as Nia's mother, LaTanya Black, sobbed while she told the court how her daughter's death affected her.
"Imagine you get a phone call and there's a bunch of young girls screaming on the other line. I'm saying 'Where's Nia?' And all they're saying is they are trying to resuscitate her," LaTanya Black said. "My baby died on the phone with me. ... The next time I saw my baby, she was on the table, eyes shut, body cold and stiff, with a bullet hole in the right side of her head."
LaTanya Black said that since Nia's death, she has been hospitalized because she has been unable to eat or sleep.
"My soul died the day my baby was murdered," she said.
The middle child of three, Nia was "the glue that kept the family bond tight," LaTanya Black said.
She was a "girly-girl" who loved music and people. She was a licensed cosmetologist who graduated from the Aveda Institute and had her own business as a professional makeup artist. She had dreamed of opening her own beauty school.
The courtroom was filled with Fields' family, Black's family and supporters from the group LaTanya Black started called "Mothers Against Community Gun Violence," which supports other mothers of homicide victims and seeks to raise gun-violence awareness.
FAMILY UNHAPPY WITH THE SENTENCE
Only one other family member spoke. She had harsh words for the judge.
"I'm disgusted with the plea deal given at a minimum sentencing to this criminal," said Patrena Amos, Nia's aunt and LaTanya's sister. "This was not James' first, second or even third shooting. He has terrorized the community with his gang activity. ... There isn't any justice for the individuals harmed by his gun violence."
Fields stood and spoke briefly.
"I never knew her. I never meant to hurt her," he said. "It was a mistake. It shouldn't have happened. To my family, I'm sorry."
FIELDS COULDN'T GIVE UP GANG LIFESTYLE
A review of Fields' history is a tale of a man conflicted.
In 2013, the Pioneer Press wrote an article about him being honored by the St. Paul Police Department for pulling an injured man from a crashed car. Fields talked about his difficult upbringing and being a founding member of St. Paul's East Side Boys gang.
He said then he had left the gang after a 2008 shooting that killed an innocent girl. He participated in the Youth in Transition program and the Stop Armed Gang Activity program, which encouraged other young men to leave the gang lifestyle. He got his GED, his driver's license and a job.
Just two years later, he pleaded guilty to two counts of assault with a dangerous weapon after shooting a 44-year-old man who had been labeled a snitch by the gang because he testified against Fields' brother at a murder trial. The shooting also happened outside the Lamplighter. Fields was sentenced to concurrent prison terms of 36 and 39 months.
In 2020, he was out of prison, and on June 13 visited the Lamplighter, St. Paul's last nude bar, at Larpenteur Avenue and Rice Street.
WRONG PLACE, WRONG TIME
Nia "Brooklyn" Black, 23, hadn't planned to go out that evening, but was in her robe doing laundry at her home in Coon Rapids. She ended up changing her plans and met up with three friends who decided to go to the Lamplighter.
The bar was at capacity when they arrived, and not accepting any more patrons. A large group of people were congregated in the parking lot.
While in the parking lot, Black got into a verbal, then physical, altercation with another woman. The fight turned into a widespread brawl and people who were inside the bar spilled out into the parking lot.
Black and her friends tried to leave, getting back into the Ford Escape they arrived in. As they drove off, shots were fired. One broke the window of the Escape and hit Black in the head, killing her.
Her friend began driving faster to get to a hospital and was pulled over by a Ramsey County sheriff's deputy, who found Black dead in the passenger's seat.
The prosecution relied on multiple videos captured during the incident. Lamplighter had 16 surveillance cameras inside and outside of its business, plus multiple phone videos were taken by bystanders.
Police stitched the videos together, showing that Fields was inside the club at the time Black was fighting with the woman. He left the club, ran to his car to retrieve his gun, and started shooting at the Escape as it drove off. He did not know Black, nor did he know what the fight was about.
"He injected himself into this situation," said prosecutor Elizabeth Lamin. "He wanted to be around, wanted to be where the action was. ... Mr. Fields must live with the horrible thing that he did."
He was originally charged with five counts of second-degree murder, one count of third-degree murder, three counts of second-degree assault, one count of possessing a firearm illegally and one count of first-degree manslaughter.
He pleaded guilty July 2 to first-degree manslaughter. According to the plea agreement, the other charges were dropped.
Fields' attorney, Katherine J. Claffey, said her client has taken responsibility for his actions and that he never intended to kill anyone.