On a rainy day in February 1998, Berta Barbes held her 16-year-old son as he lay dying in the frontyard of her Echo Park home. Moments earlier, she had heard the repeated loud crack of gunfire and screeching tires of the drive-by shooting; the sounds would echo in her dreams for nights on end.
On Thursday, she held up with a shaking hand a photograph of her son, Matthew Bravo, at the sentencing hearing of Roberto Franklin Ramirez, the man once accused of taking part in her son's killing.
"This is my son. This is my son's face," Barbes said, her voice breaking as Ramirez stared in her direction. "You only saw his back."
At an emotional hearing more than a decade after he was initially accused of involvement in three shooting deaths, Ramirez, 32, was sentenced to 30 years in prison. The victims' families said justice has not been served.
In an agreement with prosecutors, Ramirez pleaded no contest to two counts of voluntary manslaughter for a 1998 shooting in Hollywood and the slaying of a 20-year-old community college student in 1999. A third murder charge, involving Matthew Bravo's death, was dropped because of reluctant witnesses and deficiencies in the evidence, authorities said.
Ramirez was arrested at a Las Vegas motel in 1999 and has been in custody ever since. He was given credit for more than 13 years for time served and good behavior.
Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Alan Yochelson said there were a number of problems with eyewitness identifications and contradictions in the evidence that led to the decade-long case ending in a plea. Attempts to build a stronger case over the years were unsuccessful, he said.
"There was a risk, given the evidence, that he might be acquitted" if the case went to trial, he said. "That's why our office agreed to this, but it was a very, very hard decision."
Adrian Soler, a retired Los Angeles Police Department detective who investigated one of the slayings and now works as an investigator for the Riverside County district attorney's office, said that if witnesses had been cooperative, "I'm certain it would have been a first-degree murder case."
Soler said authorities believed the shootings were gang-related or motivated by cases of mistaken identity. He said Ramirez was suspected of being a member of the La Mirada Locos gang.
Larry Forbes, Ramirez's defense attorney, disputed that his client was a gang member. He said the case started out as a death penalty case but ended in a plea because of "evidentiary and legal issues."
"When you have multiple homicides, the prejudice that could occur against Mr. Ramirez at trial was such that resolving the case was in his best interest," Forbes said.
About 30 of Ramirez's friends and family filled the courtroom, leading to tense moments during statements by the victims' families. The judge expelled one man in the back row for making comments shortly after Barbes began speaking. She was allowed to address Ramirez and the court as a condition of the plea agreement.
Anna Del Rio, the mother of the community college student, Teresa Del Rio, stood dressed in black as she spoke to Ramirez in a trembling voice. She wore a pin with an image of her daughter's face and showed Ramirez poster boards containing photos of Teresa.
"You should be dead, not my daughter," she said. "You have brutalized our family beyond repair."