Mother of Utah murder victim storms out of sentencing hearing
Ryan Hal Sheppard didn't kill her son. Neither did Salt Lake County prosecutors.
But Ramona Gonzales blames them all for his death.
Gonzales, who has waited nearly five years to see justice in the revenge killing of her 35-year-old son, Vincent Samora, stormed out of a 3rd District courtroom Thursday feeling doubly betrayed by Utah's criminal justice system.
Her son wouldn't be dead if he wasn't "forced to testify" against a gang member the act for which he was killed the mother said. He wouldn't be dead if Sheppard, who witnessed the killing, hadn't pointed her son out to Anthony Prater, the triggerman.
"[Sheppard] is as responsible for the death of my son as the one who pulled the trigger," Gonzales said outside of court. "And [prosecutors], who told Vincent they would send him back to prison if he didn't testify in that case, are, too. My son was a felon. He was a drug addict. He didn't deserve to die for testifying, for doing the right thing."
But Judge Randall Skanchy sentenced Sheppard, the driver in the 2007 shooting, to five years of probation instead of any time in prison.
"Justice my a," the mother exclaimed as she stormed from the courtroom.
Sheppard, 33, entered into a plea deal with prosecutors in exchange for his willingness to testify against his co-defendant, Anthony James Prater, who was charged with Samora's murder.
Since Sheppard's arrest, his attorney said, he has cleaned up his act, remained employed and become an active parent to his two children a radical change from the man he was the day Samora was killed.
On Nov. 27, 2007, Sheppard was driving around with Prater when the two came across Samora at a local convenience store. They were both on drugs, Sheppard testified, and Prater said he wanted to get revenge for Samora's testimony against his "homeboy" and former cellmate Christopher Archuleta in an unrelated shooting case.
They followed Samora to his mother's home, where Prater shot Samora multiple times.
At Prater's February trial, Sheppard testified that he never meant for Samora to die, and that he didn't realized the shooting was happening until it was too late.
"Ryan goes over and over the fact that he shouldn't have told Prater who [the victim] was. He is heartsick over the death of Mr. Samora and his role in that," said defense attorney Deborah Kreek Mendez on Thursday. "But the fact is, these cases can go away without willing witnesses. Without Ryan, there may not have been justice for this family at all."
Prater, 29, was sentenced earlier this year to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
On Thursday, Gonzales asked Judge Randall Skanchy to send Sheppard to prison, too. She said her family lays equal blame on Sheppard for the shooting because he pointed out the victim to Prater.
But her blame doesn't stop there.
Gonzales said the justice system itself is also at fault for what happened to her son.
"They all have blood on their hands," she said.
Gonzales is seeking a lawyer for a civil suit and is trying to form an advocacy and support group for families of crime victims who feel wronged by the system.
She wants to call it "The Forgotten Ones."
Sheppard, who appeared Thursday wearing a blue shirt and black tie, hung his head and closed his eyes as Gonzales spoke. He apologized to the family in a brief address to the court.
"I wish I could take that day back, but I can't," Sheppard said. "I apologize to the whole Samora family. I hope that by testifying it made things a little easier on them."
Over the course of the case, Sheppard has spent 1,425 or nearly four years behind bars.
In granting probation, the judge ordered Sheppard be supervised for five years, rather than the normal probationary period of three years, and stressed that the probation was "zero-tolerance." That means Sheppard will go to prison for up to 20 years if he in any way violates the terms of his probation.
Sheppard was initially charged with first-degree counts of murder and obstruction of justice, as well as third-degree felony discharge of a weapon from a vehicle.
He pleaded guilty to a lesser count of manslaughter and a third-degree felony count of illegal discharge of a firearm.