For a moment, she felt like his mother again.
He looked tired and painfully thin. He probably hasn't slept in days, she thought.
Then the judge set his bail at $1.5 million, and David Helms fixed his mother with a long, hard stare.
And Gail Helms remembered why she was there.
It had been three years to the day since her grandson died--a 2-year-old charmer, killed by blows to the stomach so hard that they ruptured his internal organs and filled his body with blood.
And now she was standing in court again, one step closer to the end of her long campaign to bring her grandson's killer to justice . . . and more convinced than ever that the killer is her eldest son--the baby's father--David.
The short life and brutal death of Lance Helms mirrors the story of so many young children who die in this city at the hands of people who are supposed to love and care for them.
Born addicted to drugs, he was taken from his parents--both heroin addicts--at birth and given to his father's sister, Ayn Helms, to raise. He grew into a smart, happy toddler who loved to recite "The Cat in the Hat" and wanted to be a dinosaur when he grew up.
But his father pushed for custody, and despite warnings from social workers and family members that the child would be at risk in his father's care, a judge--in the name of family reunification--sent Lance to live with the father he hardly knew.
Three weeks later, Lance was dead.
His father told police he'd come from work to find the child gravely ill in the care of his girlfriend, who was prosecuted for murder, based on David's account. She pleaded guilty to child endangerment and was sent to prison.
David's role was that of grief-stricken dad.
But Gail Helms didn't see it that way. She knew her son too well.
"When they said Lance died from a blow to the stomach, I felt sick," she told me. "I knew. That's what David used to do to his sisters--punch them in the stomach. Every time he got mad, that was his MO."
Still, many mothers would have let it rest. Her grandchild was dead, his "killer" in jail, her troubled son free to try to pick up the pieces of his life.
But Gail Helms was tired of watching her ne'er-do-well oldest child wriggle out of problems that he'd created. "My mother used to say, 'David always lands buttered side up,' " Helms said. "This time, I just couldn't let it go."
She'd spent a lifetime, it seemed, trying to believe redemption was just around the corner. "It was always somebody else's fault. I remember going to school because he'd been fighting or gotten in some trouble. And I'd always think, 'Why doesn't he just pick different friends?' " Then the friends fell away and the trouble continued. "And I realized David was the ringleader."
He was expelled from high school and kicked out of the Army for stealing. When Gail learned--just before Lance was born--that her son was addicted to heroin, something in her died.
"I was dumbfounded. I thought of all the times we believed him, all the times we were there for him . . . and I just couldn't do it anymore."
David's girlfriend was released from prison last fall, after Gail, with help from the media, politicians and social workers, pushed the LAPD to reopen the case.
The new investigation pointed to David. He was charged with murder last week and is now in jail awaiting trial.
The toddler's murder is widely credited with sparking an overhaul of the state's child welfare system, prompting new laws that make it easier to remove children from abusive homes and put a child's safety first in custody decisions.
That gives Gail some comfort.
"You look at your son and you know what he did, and it hurts. But I can't rest until he's behind bars. And we're all forced to look at how we failed that child."
And I wonder for a moment which child she means.
* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.