Tensions between family members were high as Stephon Shannon, 17, was sentenced to 28 years in 5-year-old's death.
Nizzel George wasn't even 6, but he couldn't wait to turn 7.
It was his lucky number, but more importantly it meant he'd be in the third grade, when he didn't have to walk in line anymore. He didn't like having his face washed, or dogs -- at least until he got used to them. He loved McDonald's, honey buns and singing the Zanewood Community School song, which he proudly knew by heart.
The death of the 5-year-old shot in the back as he slept on his grandmother's couch last June became synonymous with grief and rage for the boy's family, neighborhood activists, even President Obama who evoked Nizzel's name Monday while decrying the gang violence that killed him.
But on Tuesday, when 17-year-old Stephon Shannon was sentenced to 28 years in prison for shooting up the home as part of an ongoing feud, Nizzel was remembered simply as a boy who didn't have enough time.
"He didn't get a chance to drink a lot of milk and grow," Nizzel's uncle, Golden Osagrete, 12, said in a letter he co-wrote with his brother, Willie Grear, 14. Both boys wished they would have taken the bullet instead, they wrote.
"At first I thought it was a dream," Golden wrote. "I thought I would go before him."
The boys' letter, read by a victim advocate, marked a rare poignant courtroom moment in the case, which has been defined by the volatility between the feuding families, requiring high security and a stern warning from Judge Daniel Mabley before the hearing began.
Both sides obliged until afterward, when one of Nizzel's relatives left the courtroom and murmured "baby killer" toward about a dozen of Shannon's supporters. A man in the front row stood up and began to shout toward her until another woman placed a hand over his mouth.
Nizzel was the second of two small children to be killed by stray bullets in their north Minneapolis homes in a six-month period. Terrell Mayes Jr., 3, was shot and killed on the day after Christmas in 2011 in the 2600 block of Colfax Avenue N. by a stray bullet that ripped into his family home.
Shannon pleaded guilty last week to second-degree intentional murder for the benefit of a gang. He will be eligible for parole in 17 years. With the plea, he admitted to firing shots into Nizzel's family's house at 4515 Bryant Av. N. on the morning of June 26. According to investigators, the shooting was tied to a monthslong feud between two North Side gangs, the Skitz Squad and the Y.N.T. He admitted that he tried to hit people in the home, although he said he did not intend to hit the boy.
A second alleged shooter, Julian Kijuan Anderson, 15, has been charged with first- and second-degree murder in the same incident. His next hearing is scheduled for May. Shannon will not testify against Anderson if he stands trial.
Family: Sentence too short
Shannon's baggy orange jail jumpsuit made him appear younger than his 17 years as he walked into the courtroom and flopped into a chair with a nod and grin toward his family. He didn't look toward Nizzel's family when he entered the courtroom and was quiet as Nizzel's aunt, Shannon George, read a statement to Mabley that the sentence wasn't enough.
"I keep seeing my nephew lying in that [hospital] bed dead, and breathless," she said. "Then I see him coming in here laughing and smiling. This is not a joke."
A brief apology
During his opportunity to address the court, Shannon briefly apologized, adding, "Nothing I can do or say can bring him back."
After the hearing, Shannon's great-aunt, Sheri Shannon, defended her nephew, saying he was brought up in the church and was at the "wrong place at the wrong time" when Nizzel was killed.
"We're not happy with what happened, but it is what it is, we're gonna be strong," she said. "Stephon wasn't brought up to be in violence."
Afterward, Nizzel's mother, Christina Banks, alternated between anguish and anger, saying she wanted to take the case to trial in hopes of obtaining a first-degree murder conviction and life sentence. The boy's father, Cornelius George, only shook his head sadly.
Nizzel's grandmother, Rochelle Banks-Wowo, who lives in the home where Nizzel was shot, said Shannon's sentencing provided a little closure. For now, she said she's grateful for the break before proceedings begin in Anderson's case.
"I'm tired; I'm tired," she said with a sigh. "I miss my baby so much."
Staff writer Paul Walsh contributed to this report Abby Simons 612-673-4921