Carmen Gomez has a picture of her 13-year-old son, Ray'Jon, in her home. Sometimes, she said, her young niece will walk up to the picture of the boy she never met and just say, "Uncle."
Standing in a Hennepin County courtroom on Tuesday, Gomez had to struggle not to turn around and directly address one of the men responsible for the shooting death of her only son as he and friends rode bikes down a north Minneapolis alley on Aug. 24, 2011.
Nearly collapsing in sorrow during her victim impact statement, Gomez quietly told Judge Dan Mabley of the devastation Ray'Jon's death caused her family.
"With your bullet, you killed my son," she said, referring to Donquarius Copeland, who was sitting at the defendant's table. "I only wish you could get life in prison for the way you took my son's life."
Mabley sentenced Copeland, 19, to 35 years in prison. He is the last of three men who will serve significant parts of their lives behind bars for the murder of Ray'Jon.
Kemen Taylor II, who was sentenced to life without parole earlier this month, persuaded Copeland and Derrick Catchings to shoot Ray'Jon and his two friends in retaliation for his younger brother being wounded by a rival gang member.
Taylor was driving a van, with Copeland and Catchings riding along, when they spotted three teenagers riding bikes in the alley near 17th and Russell Avenues N. Ray'Jon was riding on the back of one bike being pedaled by a 12-year-old boy.
Both boys were hit; the 12-year-old survived. Their friend on the second bike was not struck by the gunfire.
Catchings, at his plea hearing, admitted that Ray'Jon was not the person they were trying to find.
On Tuesday, Copeland was commended by Mabley for testifying against Taylor.
'Ready to serve my time'
Though he mostly let his attorney, Eric Hawkins, speak on his behalf, Copeland did manage to choke out two sentences of an apology.
"I hope one day you can forgive me," he said. "I'm ready to serve my time like a man."
Copeland pleaded guilty to second-degree intentional murder and attempted murder. His 35-year sentence was the recommended prison length under state sentencing guidelines.
Carmen Gomez said Tuesday's hearing was a bittersweet moment for her, even 2½ years after Ray'Jon was killed. Her only child was "her rock and her everything," she said.
Hawkins, telling the judge he has known Copeland for a while, gave a heartfelt speech about the teen's struggle since the shooting. Copeland has said he understands the needless loss suffered by Ray'Jon's family and is trying to forgive himself, Hawkins said.
"He has depression and has tried to kill himself in jail," the attorney said. "But he's not looking for sympathy. He's not the monster portrayed in court documents."
Hawkins went on to say that Copeland hopes to come out of prison a better person, and that Ray'Jon's death doesn't reflect upon him for the rest of his life.
Copeland's father was shot to death in front of him when he was 8, Hawkins said.
"This doesn't explain his actions," he said. "It's reflective of the community he lives in."
Nobody from Copeland's family attended the hearing, only Lanisha Taylor, Copeland's girlfriend since age 12. She said she still finds it hard to believe that he killed Ray'Jon because "that's not the person I know."
"Seeing what he's going through in prison shows how hard he's taken it," she said. "There are losses for both families."
Sorrow and anger
After the hearing, Carmen Gomez said she wants to believe that Copeland is remorseful, "but I can't do it right now." Instead, she said, she's focusing on happy memories of her child, whom she described as an intelligent teenager with a great personality.
"He would give you the last piece of his candy if you asked for it," she said.
It wasn't the first time the Gomez family has had to deal with the violent death of a loved one. In 1995, Malo Gomez, Carmen's 21-year-old nephew, was shot to death on the city's North Side. That death prompted two community foundations to issue a brochure decrying street killings.
Ray'Jon's death, along with the murders of two other teens within the span of a month, triggered similar community outrage.
"I'm just angry," said Camille Gomez, Carmen's twin sister. "I will never see him again."
Every Aug. 24, the family holds a picnic to celebrate his life, his mother said. She pulled a picture of his grave from her purse and pointed out the etchings of a basketball, a bike and his German shepherd puppy, Zany, on the marker.
"Give your all to your kids every day," she said. "I never knew I was going to lose him."
After Ray'Jon's death, she moved away from her North Side home.
"I know I have to forgive him," she said, referring to Copeland. "Now maybe Ray'Jon can rest in peace."