More than a year and a half after a Lodi man was shot to death while walking to school on an early February morning in 2012, Maria Ramirez confronted her son’s killer in San Joaquin County Superior Court on Monday.
“If you knew my son, maybe you wouldn’t have done what you did,” an interpreter translated as Ramirez spoke in front of the court.
Sitting mere feet away and tethered by shackles, Abelardo Heras, 17, was sentenced to spend the next 25 years to life in prison after pleading guilty to first-degree murder in the shooting death of 21-year-old Eric Lopez.
A plea deal reached July 25 — which also included one count of committing a felony for the benefit of a street gang — allowed Heras to avoid life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The hearing also allowed Lopez’s loved ones to one-by-one express their profound loss and anger.
“(Eric Lopez) had a big heart. He helped his friends. He was a servant who wanted to help many,” Ramirez said through an interpreter.
But with those words, she couldn’t continue.
Ramirez was helped out of the courtroom, her cries too loud to contain.
Though given a chance, Heras refused to speak. He remained silent and expressionless as he learned he’d be eligible for parole in 2038, is required to pay Lopez’s family more than $7,000 in restitution, and must register as a gang member if he’s ever released.
The moment did not appear to affect Heras. At times throughout the proceeding, he turned toward the audience with a smile, then looked back ahead.
That prompted Walter Del Lion, a close friend of the Lopez family, to speak.
“When I came here this morning, I didn’t have any words to say,” he said before the court. “The only thought in my mind was, ‘God, please forgive him. Give him another chance, because every one needs another chance.’ When I saw him this morning, he changed my mind.”
At that moment, Heras turned toward Del Lion, standing only a few feet away, and smiled.
“The family’s words said everything,” said prosecutor Janet Smith, a San Joaquin County Deputy District Attorney. “There’s not a winner in there. It’s unfortunate the defendant couldn’t be more remorseful about his actions.”
Heras’ silence left the family without answers to one burning question.
“I just want to know why you did this,” said Margarita Lopez, Eric Lopez’s sister.
Those were the only words Margarita Lopez had the strength to say before turning to Smith in tears, unable to speak anymore.
Others were compelled to tell Heras about the man he killed.
Alejandra Ramirez and Eric Lopez grew up together. And after Ramirez, Eric Lopez’s aunt, became pregnant at just 19 years old, Eric Lopez grew to be a father figure to her young son.
“I don’t understand why (Heras) took my nephew’s life,” Ramirez said.
Toward the end of the hearing, Judge William Johnson addressed Heras.
“You have your whole life ahead of you,” he said. “You took another young man’s life. It’s up to you where your life goes from here. You have an opportunity to make some changes.”
And while Heras’ life goes on, Maria Ramirez reminded him that her son’s does not.
“You’ve ended his dreams and goals,” Ramirez said through a interpreter. “He wanted to be an architect. He wanted to design homes.”
But despite her loss, Ramirez remained strong.
“I want you to know that I forgive you, and may God forgive you for what you have done,” she said. “You stole a life.”
Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.