DADE CITY — Shelleen Dunkley raised her right hand in court Tuesday and swore to these things:
That Jamie Hopkins and Dunkley's son Mikey were best friends.
That she believed Mikey's death last November, while caused by Hopkins, was a true accident.
That she didn't want Hopkins to go to jail for killing her boy.
"I don't want to lose another child," Dunkley told the judge.
Hopkins, 19, was charged with manslaughter and could have faced up to 15 years in prison if convicted in a trial. But because of the mercy Dunkley showed, Hopkins was allowed to plead guilty in exchange for 10 years of probation.
He was barred from consuming alcohol and must submit to random drug tests and perform 1,000 hours of community service.
Also, he can't have any guns.
It was horseplay with a shotgun, authorities say, that led to this tragedy during a party at a home on Penny Loop in Land O'Lakes. Just after midnight, Hopkins brought out a shotgun, emptied the round and passed the gun around to the others at the party. When he got the gun back, authorities said, he put the barrel in Mikey Dunkley's mouth.
It was a joke, and Mikey, 20, went along with it, authorities said.
Believing it was still empty, Hopkins pulled the trigger. But someone must have reloaded the gun as it was being passed around, and in a horrible instant Mikey was dead.
He and Hopkins were roommates and as close as friends could be. They loved to go fishing and play basketball, Shelleen Dunkley said.
Neither had ever been in trouble with the law.
Hopkins didn't speak at the hearing Tuesday. Shelleen Dunkley dabbed her face with a tissue and watched as he was fingerprinted. When it was over, she and her daughter walked outside with Hopkins and his family, and they all talked. Again and again, they held each other in long, tight hugs.
Dunkley said she loved Hopkins too much to see him go to jail.
Her son, she said, "was the best."
"Actually, he was the bomb," she said with a laugh.
Before she drove away in her silver pickup, she added: "Tell teenagers don't play with guns."
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.