The judge got up from the bench. He needed a few minutes Tuesday morning to decide if the man who killed Karson Whitesell should get life in prison.
Karson’s mother, Debbie Harrison, wanted life -- for her daughter.
Karson was 19 when she was shot by Christopher Mendez on Jan. 23 at the Peach Stand convenience store in Fort Mill.
Karson was a missionary with dreams of being a mother and wife. Mendez and Karson did not know each other. The crime was random. Mendez walked into the business and shot her five times.
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Mendez had just pleaded guilty. All that was left to decide was whether he would spend the rest of his life in a South Carolina prison.
The case did not have an aggravating factor that would have made it a death penalty case, said 16th Circuit Solicitor Kevin Brackett. The most severe sentence Mendez could face was life in prison via plea, or a trial.
All of Whitesell’s family said in court that they wanted life in prison. Supporters of Karson Whitesell packed the courtroom. Some were in the store when she was killed.
Just moments before, Harrison had asked York County Circuit Court Judge Bill McKinnon for a life sentence so no other innocent girl would have the joy of life taken -- like Karson’s was. So no other mother would go through the agony she had.
“I still have the brown evidence bag (at home) with my daughter’s belongings in it, that she had when she was killed, on my kitchen floor,” Harrison had told the judge. “I can’t open it.”
She still has her dead daughter’s cellphone number at the very top of her contacts list.
“I can’t delete it,” Harrison said.
She had listened to prosecutors say that Mendez killed her daughter just so he could experience the feeling of taking a life. She had cried during those moments when she heard the words “cold,” and “calculating,” and “death.”
But Harrison heard sobbing. She was crying herself, and wiping tears, and still she heard the sobs. Deep, wracking sobs on the other side of the courtroom. The person crying was the killer’s mother, Carmen Felix.
Felix was being hugged by Mendez’s father, Benjamin.
The sobs were almost the only sound in the courtroom.
Debbie Harrison said she did what her daughter would have wanted. What her own soul and faith and heart told her to do.
Debbie Harrison hugged Carmen Felix.
Harrison walked across the aisle of the courtroom and hugged the mother of the man who had slain her daughter.
Harrison whispered to her. The hug went on. Harrison ran her hand along Carmen’s back and shoulders.
After court, Harrison shared what was said in those whispers during the courtroom hug.
“I told her both our families were forever altered on January 23,” Harrison said. “I said I knew that she raised him (Christopher Mendez) to be a good boy. I told her that I didn’t fault her, or Mendez’s father, in this. I told her his actions were of his own doing.”
Harrison, a deeply religious Christian woman, said she told Felix that she prayed for her.
“She told me she prayed for me every day too,” Harrison said.
Harrison said she told Mendez’s parents that whatever the sentence would be, that one side would be distraught.
After the embrace ended, Harrison stood up and went back to her side of the courtroom, wiping away her own tears, which have rarely stopped since her daughter died.
When the judge came back, it took only 59 seconds for him to say that Mendez’s action on Jan. 23 was premeditated. Mendez went out of the store and armed himself. He came back in, waited for Karson Whitesell, and shot her five times.
“Prison for the rest of your natural life,” McKinnon told Mendez.
Carmen Felix sobbed again. Debbie Harrison sat on her side of the courtroom and wiped away more tears. Harrison accepted hugs from her husband and family. She met briefly with prosecutors, then walked out of the courthouse.
She did not smile.
No life sentence would bring Karson back.
“I’m just fortunate to say our family was on the side that we got a little peace from this,” Harrison said.
She thanked the police and prosecutors who fought for justice for her daughter.
Then she left, to cry the rest of her tears all alone.