BRADENTON — Family members of a woman gunned down in her home last year shed tears and embraced each other outside Manatee County Judicial Center after a judge sentenced a paralyzed teen gunman to life in prison.
“I just want to thank God. There’s justice now,” said Maria Rangel, whose mother, 55-year-old Maria Lerma, was shot to death in a botched home invasion in February 2009.
The gunman, Ta Heem Blake, is now a quadriplegic after one of Lerma’s sons opened fire with a .380-caliber handgun. Blake was found guilty of first-degree murder and other charges. Circuit Court Judge Debra Riva sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
“I don’t have my mom with me. Nothing can bring her back. She’s in peace now,” Rangel said before hugging family members outside. “I’m happy for the sentence.”
Blake, now 19, and Marquis Sanders, another former classmate from Palmetto High School, broke into a residence in the 900 block of 25th Street East in Bradenton on Feb. 1, 2009, by throwing a piece of a cement block through the sliding glass door searching for money.
On the last day of the four-day trial, several gang unit members sat with Lerma’s family members in civilian clothes after the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office received information of a possible threat.
Blake was affiliated with a criminal street gang, Mutt Crew, according to taped interviews with detectives.
One of Lerma’s sons was a former East Side Crips gang member, according to a Bradenton Police report.
Blake was convicted of shooting two people, including Lerma’s boyfriend in the arm after he barged into their bedroom.
Before the incident, Blake said he did not know the Lerma family.
“There was no motive of revenge. He didn’t know them,” Assistant State Attorney Art Brown said in closing arguments.
Blake was found by police at the scene after one of the bullets severed his spine.
“Mr. Blake frozen in time — his burglar’s gloves still on his hands. His murder weapon only a couple of feet away from his right hand,” Brown told the jury of nine women and three men.
“His mask and his clothes strewn with other fragments of that glass slider that he and Mr. Sanders shattered, just as they shattered peace and security of that family.”
Blake was taken to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, where Bradenton Police detectives later interviewed him.
He has since been able to regain some movement in his arms.
Daniel Hernandez, Blake’s attorney, asked Riva that Blake serve time in a prison facility where he can have extensive physical therapy and receive medical care.
While Blake can eat normal food, he is unable to feed himself. A nursing assistant has to turn him every two hours to help him with circulation.
Hernandez plans to file an appeal in hopes of overturning the conviction.
Hernandez told jurors there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Blake.
“I’m submitting to you the lack of evidence and conflicting evidence clearly create reasonable doubt and clearly warrant a verdict of not guilty,” he said.
“Simply because Mrs. Lerma is dead doesn’t mean that Mr. Blake has to be found guilty for that death,” Hernandez added.
He also questioned the time line of when authorities were contacted and arrived on scene.
“There was an abundance of time to alter the crime scene before it was actually secured by police,” he said.
“The only person . . . who could not alter anything at the scene was the defendant who had been shot and was laying paralyzed on the ground.”
— BayNews9 footage contributed to this report.