In tearful testimony Friday, Donna O'Brien imagined what her son, Kyle, would be doing if he were alive today.
He would be graduating with honors from Cal State Fullerton with a degree in anthropology. He would be competing at a national collegiate fencing competition. He would be serving as the Associated Student Body's vice president of finance.
For cutting short a life that held so much promise, Orange County Superior Court Judge John J. Ryan sentenced O'Brien's killer, Gilbert Acosta, to the maximum term of 50 years to life in prison Friday.
Ryan called the murder a senseless killing inspired only by Acosta's desire to avoid capture while trying to steal from a Sears store in Orange, where O'Brien worked as a security guard. Acosta, 21, of Bell, hung his head while Ryan described him as a career thief who stole to support a drug habit and murdered to avoid being caught.
"This crime and Mr. Acosta's lifestyle was because of the methamphetamines he started taking at a very young age," Ryan said.
O'Brien, then 22, and a resident of Orange, was working on Aug. 15, 1997, when Acosta tried to get a cash refund for a $152 paint sprayer. Acosta didn't have a receipt and couldn't produce personal identification. The salesclerk suspected the sprayer was stolen, and alerted security guards.
O'Brien and another security guard, Randall DePue, were accompanying Acosta to his car, where he said he had left his identification, when Acosta shot O'Brien twice in the chest and DePue once in the arm.
Defense attorneys argued during trial that Acosta's gun fired accidentally while he struggled with the two security guards, but jurors convicted him of first-degree murder.
Alfonso Acosta, the defendant's father, said he believed the sentence was too harsh because his son was a good person who had problems brought on by a drug dependency.
The defendant's father also argued that Acosta's drug problem was worsened after he was the victim of gun violence. Gilbert Acosta was shot in the ankle during a drive-by shooting in 1995 that left him with a permanent limp. A friend who was shot in the same incident died in Acosta's arms, his father said.
It was that day, said Alfonso Acosta, that his son began carrying a gun.
"He deserves to be punished, but not for such a long time. It was an accident and I think it all happened because of his problems with drugs," the father said.
Donna O'Brien, however, said that Acosta deserved to pay for her son's life with his own.
"He chose to pull the trigger not once but four times. Now he must pay for that choice with his life," she said.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Lewis Rosenblum said he was pleased with the sentence.
"Obviously, he felt that a crime like this deserves the most significant punishment possible," said Rosenblum.