Carolina Albanir touches her son's urn every day. She says she closes her eyes and rubs the lid, imaging her son's smiling face. Some days she caresses it.
Two and a half years after the murder of Tommy Gregory, a popular Clearwater barber, the crime still leaves a gaping hole in his relatives' lives.
On Friday, Gregory's relatives gathered in a Pinellas courtroom to watch his killer, Billy L. Jackson, be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Gregory's mother said her son had a tough life. He struggled with drug addiction for years, and fought through rehab many times. The loss of her son is indescribable, she said.
"It is very painful to see how life goes on — life goes on without Tommy," she said. "Tommy was my pride and joy … my beautiful son and best friend who wanted to take care of me when I got old."
Jackson, 22, stood just feet away in his blue jail jumpsuit and sandals. He made little eye contact and showed hardly any emotion throughout the hearing.
Justice Medina, mother to one of Gregory's children, read a letter her 8-year-old son wrote to Jackson.
"Why did you do this?" it began. The boy is suffering from bouts of rage and clinical depression, she said. His father's death was devastating.
The shooting took place on Dec. 30, 2005. Gregory, then 34, was found slumped in a Honda Civic that had crashed into a tree at Pennsylvania Avenue and Lee Street in Clearwater. He had been shot in the chest and died shortly after being taken to Mease Dunedin Hospital.
Police developed Jackson as a suspect after discovering that Gregory had saved his phone number on his cell phone in the minutes surrounding the shooting.
Under the advice of his attorney, Jackson did not address the court Friday because he plans an appeal.
Instead, defense attorney Daniel M. Hernandez read one of Jackson's statements from the pre-sentence investigation: "I did not shoot and kill Tommy. I never thought I would be convicted for something I didn't do."
Jackson's mother, Pansy Jackson, asked Circuit Judge Richard Luce to spare her son because she believes he is innocent. Then she turned to her son and told him to hold his head high and have faith he would be exonerated.
"I want my son to know I will always love you for the rest of your life," she said. "Yes, you have a criminal background but you never hurt anybody."
Before the hearing, Hernandez asked the judge to allow Jackson and his mother an embrace.
"I'm not in the position to allow hugfests," Luce said.
Because Jackson committed the crime within three years of being released from prison on Aug. 4, 2004, his second-degree murder conviction qualified for an enhanced penalty.
Prosecutor Michael Marr told the court that Jackson had been a criminal "all his life" and had "forfeited his right to live among the law-abiding citizens of this county."
Luce then recited Jackson's long criminal history, which included theft and drug charges. He delivered the sentence to Jackson and addressed his mother as well, saying the sentencing guidelines made the punishment clear.
"To your mother, I do this with a clear conscience," Luce said.
While the hearing brought closure, a "dark shadow" still looms over the case, Gregory's mother said, because nobody knows the motive for the murder.
"I know there are people who know why he was there but the truth has not come out," she said.
Jonathan Abel can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4157.