LARGO — Heads rested on shoulders and hands interlocked. Fresh packs of tissues were pulled from purses. Bloodshot eyes fixed on the front of the courtroom.
Circuit Judge R. Timothy Peters was about to sentence the man who, two years ago, killed four people in a drunken car crash.
Then, Peters apologized for what he had to do next — state for the record the agonizing facts of what happened at 12:45 a.m. on Aug. 1, 2010.
Demetrius Jordan, drunk and high, drove south on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street in St. Petersburg. The speed limit was 35 mph. Five seconds before his Chevrolet Impala reached the intersection at 22nd Avenue, the judge said, Jordan's speedometer hit 92 mph.
A Ford Fusion carrying Elroy McConnell and his three adult sons entered that intersection at the exact same moment. McConnell never jerked the wheel. He never sped up. He never jammed the breaks.
"They died," the judge told the court, "with no warning at all."
Peters then sentenced Jordan to what state guidelines recommend: just more than 44 years in prison.
The dead men's sisters and brothers and parents and widows had packed into four rows of the courtroom's left side. Ten of them had spoken, and with each new voice the family's anguish grew more real. Sighs became tears. Then, as Peters talked, the gravity of their loss appeared, at last, too much to bear. Heads sank and collapsed into open hands. Tears became heaving sobs.
"The force of this collision was so horrific," the judge said, pausing. "Frankly, it's difficult to comprehend."
The impact crushed and killed all four men: Elroy McConnell, 51; Elroy III, 28; Nathan, 24; and Kelly, 19.
Jordan's attorney, Carl Roland Hayes, had earlier argued that his client deserved less than the 44 years of imprisonment mandated by law. Jordan, 22, had no criminal background and no history of alcohol or drug abuse.
His family and friends told the court that he was a kind, quiet kid who mentored younger classmates and helped strangers in need. They begged the judge for mercy.
"I believe with all my heart that DJ deserves some kind of chance," said his former teacher Annessa Mortensen. "He's not a throwaway kid."
Some of the McConnells also asked Peters to spare Jordan from a life sentence. Others said life was not enough.
For them, nothing is the same. Not shopping trips or watching movies. Not holidays or weekdays.
Empty chairs at family dinners only remind them of who is gone. The jokes feel forced, and so do the laughs. They always have too many leftovers because they haven't learned to cook less food.
Some have decided the get-togethers are just too hard. They've quit coming.
Lisa Stilp, mother of Nathan and Elroy III, wore a long black dress to Friday's hearing. She trembled at the lectern as she told Peters the man who killed her boys deserved no leniency.
"I believe justice will be served," she said, "when he meets his maker."
Stilp takes medication for depression and anxiety. She has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Elroy III's wife, Sandie McConnell, also suffers from major depression.
Four months before he died, the couple had their first child, Elroy IV. His father used to sit on the couch with his son and explain the rules of football. One day, Elroy III promised, he would coach his little league team.
The boy never really knew his father, Sandie told the court, but he still acts like him.
When Sandie cries, the boy, not yet 3 years old, wipes her tears and rubs her back. He asks what's wrong. It's about his father, she tells him. He still doesn't understand where his Dada went.
His death devastated her relationship with God. Sandie has to fix that, she said, so one day she can see her husband again.
Amy Voelker — Elroy's wife and Kelly's mother — told Jordan she wanted to forgive him as a gift to her son.
Elroy's sister, Lorraine McConnell couldn't say that.
"I want to be a Christian and I want to forgive him. I want to do that so hard," she said. "I think Demetrius first needs to ask forgiveness from the Lord."
For well more than an hour, the McConnells read statements to the judge. Throughout, Jordan stared straight ahead. His eyes didn't waver and his head didn't move, until Lorraine McConnell said those words — that Jordan should ask God for forgiveness.
Jordan spoke last.
He stood in the middle of the courtroom, and peered up at the judge. His dreadlocks were tied back in a bun, and a blue jumpsuit hung loose from his shoulders. He looked drained.
A jumbled apology spilled from his mouth. Four people died, he acknowledged, because of his decisions.
Jordan searched for something more to say.
"I'm just lost," he said. "I'm terribly lost."
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.