In the days after his mother’s murder, “the doorbell would ring, and Jayden would run to the door with a big smile, thinking his mom had finally come to get him,” the 2-year-old boy’s grandfather recalled in a letter read to the court.
“It was very emotional to me,” Richard Bernard Nelson said in the letter, “to see the letdown in his face and the disappointment in his face once the door opened and his mother was not there.”
On Friday, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Kevin J. McCormick sentenced the man who fired the bullet that killed Monique Roxanne Nelson to 21 years in state prison. The jury called the killing of the woman by James Leo Carney III a voluntary manslaughter. Nelson’s family called it murder, and they said it killed a part of all of them as well, and that nobody hurts worse than Nelson’s little boy.
Jayden Butler Nelson is now 6, and he’s never gotten over the violence that caused his mother’s absence. His family told how the boy stutters and cries, about his nightmares of demons chasing him with guns. He remains shattered, they said, by the killing of his mother, who covered him up with her body when a shootout broke out in the parking lot in front of a south Sacramento barbershop where the two of them were picking out some Christmas pictures of themselves 11 days before the winter holiday four years ago.
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“The void I see in my son’s eyes hurts me more than anything,” said Jayden’s father, Kenyatta Butler, in a statement read to the court. “It’s the times I catch him gazing out the window or just daydreaming, and I ask him, ‘What are you thinking about?’ and his simple reply is, ‘My mommy.’ ”
Butler described his son’s torment as “so much pain, anguish and yearning for a mother he will never see again,” a woman Butler said was “the center of his universe.”
“The look of hurt, confusion and total sadness tears me up inside,” Butler said. “We could be in the grocery or watching cartoons and he will just start crying for his mommy. All I can do is hold him until he settles down and tell him his mommy is watching him from heaven.”
Carney, 35, shot Jayden’s mother during the Dec. 14, 2010, shootout in front of Fly Cuts & Styles on Stockton Boulevard. The mother and son had just come out of a one-hour photo store where they’d selected a Christmas picture of her cuddling him in his little red Santa’s cap in front of a snowy mountain backdrop. Carney had just pulled up to the barbershop after receiving a distress call from a friend inside that something wasn’t right, that a couple of men were carrying guns and making threats and staring at anybody who looked at them.
Reacting to the alert, Carney called his friend, Marvion Barksdale, who had been in a beef with one of the men who was making the ruckus. Barksdale headed to the barbershop with a friend, Dominique Lott, and both of them were armed. Carney drove over by himself, with a gun of his own.
When Barksdale and Lott parked across Stockton Boulevard from the barbershop and approached on foot, the two troublemakers inside came out and fired their weapons, killing Barksdale, 20, and wounding Lott. Carney, parked across Lindale Drive to the north of the barbershop, said somebody shot at him, too. He fired back, and he fatally struck Monique Nelson as she protected her son from the shooting all around them.
Monique Nelson’s mother, Deborah, called the death “an unfathomable loss,” the greatest of which, she said, is “what dies inside us while we live.”
The mother called the daughter “the glue that made us all stick together as a family.” Deborah Nelson said her grandson Jayden “has this indelible mark scorched into his consciousness of his mother dying in his arms … He will be in therapy for the rest of his life.”
Deborah Nelson described Monique – the supervisor of a family-owned newsstand at Sacramento International Airport – as “vivacious, humorous and glamorous,” the “only innocent one in this whole sickly scenario,” whose body is now confined “in a cold mausoleum for eternity.”
Carney had been accused of first-degree murder in the case but the jurors in their Aug. 20 verdict found that he shot in self-defense and the defense of his friends and convicted him on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.
In his statement to the court, Carney offered the Nelson family an apology.
“I never meant to cause her family this much pain or take her son’s mother away,” Carney said. “I know my decisions were horrific in their eyes. The truth of the fact, I never seen her, and if I did, she would not be dead.”
Carney called the shooting “a tragic accident,” which brought him a rebuke from the judge.
“I don’t call it an accident,” McCormick said. “I call it a crime. And the jury called it a crime.”
Asked by McCormick why he had a gun that day, Carney said, “It was a lifestyle I was in, to protect myself from any situation, and that’s the truth.”
“My question is, what are you doing in your life that makes you feel you need to run around with a firearm?” the judge countered.
McCormick, in answering his own question, ran down Carney’s criminal history, including convictions for grand theft-person, giving false information to a peace officer, petty theft, possession of cocaine for sale, driving under the influence, possession of ammunition and transportation of Ecstasy pills. Carney also had numerous probation violations, the judge said.
Deputy District Attorney Valerie Brown said “we are very disappointed” with the voluntary manslaughter verdict. She called Carney’s statement to the court “so self-serving it is pathetic.”
“But for Mr. Carney’s phone calls to Mr. Barksdale, and Mr. Carney’s actions, Monique Nelson would be alive, and but for Mr. Carney’s phone calls and actions, Jayden wouldn’t be continuously looking for his mother to come through the door,” Brown said.
Jurors convicted the two men inside the barbershop of first-degree murder. Sentencing on Louis James Mitchell, 23, and Lonnie Orlando Mitchell Jr., 27, is set for Oct. 24, in front of McCormick.
The panel acquitted a fourth defendant, Larry Dean Jones Jr., 32.
Two other men pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and also have been sentenced to 21 years in prison. They are Dominique Lott, 31, and Charles Barksdale, 33. Marvion Barksdale, 20, was killed in the shootout, but no charges were filed in his death. Prosecutors say he played a major role in starting the shootout.