At 4 years old, Demond Reed woke up early every morning, smiling, full of energy, ready to eat breakfast and eager to turn every TV in the house on to his beloved "SpongeBob SquarePants."

He liked Chicken McNuggets from McDonald's, chocolate milk, playing with his cousins and riding in the car with his grandpa Tony Ishmon from Chicago to Minneapolis.

"He was a little fun, energetic kid that just wanted to be loved," Ishmon said in his victim-impact statement, standing yards from the table where Demond's killer, his aunt Carla Poole, sat with her lawyer Rick Trachy.

On Friday, Ishmon came to Hennepin County District Court in search of an explanation why "his traveling buddy" died. His anguished voice rose as he concluded his comments.

"The only thing I want to know is, Why did she do it?" he said, thumping his hand on the rostrum for each of the final five words before walking out of the courtroom and calling Poole an epithet.

But family members who gathered for Poole's sentencing got no answer to that question.

There was no suspense about Poole's prison term. She agreed to a 40-year sentence as part of her plea deal last month. She pleaded guilty to second-degree unintentional murder in Demond's brutal death in Minneapolis earlier this year.

Poole admitted killing Demond, who weighed only 29 pounds, when he was in her care while his dad was serving a brief stint in the workhouse. She had two of her own children hold Demond as she beat him. Afterward she did not summon help for him and eventually bagged and hid his body. When Poole called police, she told them Demond had been taken by an acquaintance. Eventually, her story unraveled when one of her children told police what had happened. Police found Demond's bruised and bitten body in a duffel bag in the back of a closet.

The case was tough even for experienced homicide detectives such as Lt. Nancy Dunlap. Dunlap led the interrogation of Poole during the investigation into Demond's disappearance. She spent hours sitting across from her trying to get to the truth. Dunlap came to court on Friday and took a seat so she could see Poole's face at sentencing.

Family pleads for answers

The pain of losing Demond at the savage hands of a trusted family member was evident Friday as relatives spoke for half an hour to District Court Judge Margaret Daly.

"Can you address Carla for me and ask her why did she kill Demond?" Ishmon said to Daly. "That's the only thing I want to know."

Cousin Cynette Flowers, 18, of Chicago wore a kelly green T-shirt with Demond's name on the front and his picture on the back. She showed Daly picture boards she had made of the boy. "I can't see how anybody could do such a heinous crime. He was just 4. He was so harmless," Flowers said.

Grandmother Charmon Brown of Chicago said through tears, "I want to know why, why from my favorite cousin, why she would do this?"

The alleged trigger for the beating was that Demond soiled his pants. Brown said, "She could have told me. I would have come and got him."

Demond's parents ran into traffic on their drive from Chicago and will submit statements to the court later, Assistant Hennepin County Attorney Amy Sweasy said.

When it was the defense's turn to speak, Trachy called the case a "complete tragedy" and "inexplicable." "The fact is there is very little to say," he said. "There is absolutely no way to explain, to understand what went on here."

He said the killing was fueled by "whatever motivations lurk in people's hearts and minds."

Ultimately, he said Poole did one thing to avoid further tragedy: She entered a guilty plea.

When it was Poole's turn to speak. Daly asked if she had anything to say. Wearing an orange jail outfit, her hair cornrowed, her eyes a little wet, Poole just shook her head and said no.

'Your children had no choice'

Then Daly spoke. There is no answer to the question why, she said. "What your family might want to know is: Is there any justification? There simply isn't. ... There is nothing this little boy could have done in his life to justify [the beating]."

Raising children is frustrating and demanding, she said, but "it is just impossible to explain the extensive beating here" and "the calculated way in which you proceeded during and after the incident," she said to Poole.

She exonerated Poole's children. "Your children had no choice in what they did. They were powerless to stop you."

Poole has four children. A hearing is scheduled next month in juvenile court to determine where they will live.

After the court session, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman told reporters Poole deserves every month of her 40 years and he hopes for some public closure on the case. "There are a number of people who believe the death penalty appropriate in cases like this. I don't. The state of Minnesota doesn't," he said.

Ishmon didn't want Poole to die. He just wanted answers. As he left the courtroom, he said, "She has nothing to say. Not 'I'm sorry' or anything."

Rochelle Olson • 612-673-1747