ROCKFORD, Ill. (WTVO) — A man already in prison for felony murder in the death of a teen at Marie’s Pizza back in 2011 asked a Winnebago County judge to reduce his sentence.

Lamar O. Coates, 34, who’s serving 40 years in the Illinois Department of Corrections in the death of 16-year-old Michael Sago Jr., appeared in front of Judge Debra Schafer Friday, telling the court he is not the same person he was went he entered prison in 2013.

“I am trying to change my life and do well,” Coates said.

Friday’s hearing came after Coates filed a petition for post-conviction relief in 2019, claiming now-retired Judge Gary Pumilia denied him due process when he locked him up for four decades. 

Coates claimed Pumilia considered a previous gun felony when determining his sentence. The problem with that consideration, Coates claims, is that the 2009 charge had been reduced to a Class A misdemeanor and should not have been a factor in the murder case. 

An state appellate court agreed, sending the case back to a trial judge for resentencing.

Assistant State’s Attorney Ken LaRue said regardless of his goals to better himself, Coates is where he should be for causing Sago’s death, even though he didn’t fire he shots that killed him.

LaRue praised Coates’ mother, who was 16 she she had him, for keeping him out of the criminal justice system. But he said that all changed when Coates became an adult.

LaRue said when Coates was 21 and able to make his own decisions, he started having run-ins with the law, resulting in arrests for domestic violence, battery, illegal gun possession, and driving on a suspended license.

“Then the defendant picked up the murder charge,” LaRue said. “He continued to evolve in the criminal justice system.”

Coates’ conviction stems from an incident on Oct. 1, 2011, when Sago, his half brother, was fatally shot by off-duty Winnebago County Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Pobjecky during a botched robbery at Marie’s Pizza at 1513 Charles St.

Pobjecky was in the restaurant to pick up a pizza and watch a sporting event with owner Vincenzo Tarara when Coates, Michael Sago Jr., Brandon L. Sago, and Desmond Bellmon attempted to rob Tarara at gunpoint. 

During a struggle between Coates and Tarara, Pobjecky grabbed a handgun Tarara was carrying on his belt and shot all four suspects.

Michael Sago Jr. was struck in the back as he headed toward the door. He died just outside the restaurant. Coates was shot in the neck and spend three weeks in the hospital.

Although he didn’t shoot Michael Sago Jr., Coates was sentenced under the state’s old felony murder law. The law allows a person to be charged with first-degree murder in the death of another if the death happened during the commission of a felony. 

“It is not a case where he deliberately shot and killed anybody,” defense attorney Allan Sincox said.

Sincox said under the new Illinois felony murder law that went into effect Jan. 1, Coates would likely not have been charged with first-degree murder.

Under the new law, first-degree murder can only be charged if death is directly caused by an actor in an underlying felony. Therefore, Sincox said, a 40-year sentence makes no sense.

“He has the ability to turn his life around,” Sincox said. “It makes no sense to not give him a light at the end of that tunnel.”

The next hearing in the case is set for 9 a.m., Sept. 6.

Meanwhile, Brandon Sago and Desmond Bellmon are serving time for felony murder. Brandon Sago was found guilty at trial and is serving 37 years while Bellmon was sentenced to 20 years after accepting a plea agreement.