MANATEE — Daniel Williams was watching her but then turned his gaze away as she began to speak.
The crying mother of a 17-year-old girl he shot and killed one year ago stood before him in court Monday, just after he accepted 25 years in prison as part of a plea deal.
Tears rolled down Raechelle James’ face as she clutched wadded tissue and a pink scrapbook adorned with her slain daughter’s picture and name, Jazmine Thompson.
“Jazmine has already forgiven you,” she said as she pointed at the picture. “Jazmine was very bright. She wanted to go to school to become a criminal lawyer.”
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Instead, James visits the grave of her daughter, a Bayshore High School senior and cheerleader, at Skyway Memorial Gardens.
“Danny, I will — in due time — forgive you. You took my one and only child,” James said. “I will never be a grandmother. I will never see her get married. I didn’t even get to see her walk across the stage” at graduation.
Williams, 19, faced up to life in prison if he had been convicted at trial of second-degree murder in the death of Thompson on Sept. 4. Under a plea deal he accepted Monday — the day jury selection was slated to start for his trial — Williams pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of manslaughter with a firearm, which carries a maximum sentence of 30 years.
Williams was accused of shooting Thompson just outside the school less than an hour after a Southeast High School football game.
Thompson was sitting in the back seat of a vehicle with two other cheerleaders. They were picking up another cheerleader from Southeast when Williams approached the vehicle and made an inappropriate comment to the girls. The conversation lasted only a couple of minutes, according to reports.
As Williams walked away, he fired several shots toward the vehicle. The girls, who were going to drop Thompson off at her residence several blocks away, realized Thompson had been shot in the head.
Tom Fielding, a public defender who represented Williams, said he hopes others will learn from the tragedy.
“Unfortunately there’s still a lot of young people out there with guns who think it’s the wild west,” he said. “Daniel Williams was playing with a gun and a beautiful girl is dead. ... Jazmine paid the ultimate price and he’s going to pay a huge price.”
Mary Murry, Williams’ grandmother, said her heart goes out to James, but believes the shooting was a “freak accident.”
“He was negligent. I know he didn’t do it on purpose,” she said. “I raised him. I’ve seen what’s in his heart. I know this wasn’t intentional.”
Williams never apologized to the family in court and chose not to make a statement.
That sent waves of emotion through James as Williams turned his back to face Judge Debra Riva.
She quietly sobbed while her mother, Aretha, consoled her.
“He’s not sorry,” she said, struggling.
Carolyn Murry, Williams’ mother, said she believes her son regrets what happened.
“I know he wakes up every day and thinks about it,” she said.
In court, James looked over at the Williams’ family.
“We’ve both lost children,” she said.
Outside the courthouse, Murry disagreed. She doesn’t consider her son lost.
“I don’t believe in punishment. ... I believe God is in control of everything,” she said, reflecting on her son’s prison sentence. “I think it’s going to make him a better man — a better citizen. I would rather him ... learn from his mistakes.”