Two years after her 13-year-old daughter was accidentally shot inside a South Miami-Dade school bus, Ady Guzman-DeJesus faced the girl’s killer in court on Tuesday.
There was no anger or rage. Instead, she gave Jordyn Howe a tearful hug.
“I’m sorry,” Howe, 16, stammered as she wrapped her arms around him, fighting back his own tears.
It was part of an extraordinary gesture of forgiveness from a grieving mother who also blessed a plea deal that will allow Howe to avoid prison for the awful mistake that killed Lourdes "Jina" Guzman-DeJesus. Instead, Howe will attend a youth camp for a year and agree to speak at schools about the dangers of guns — alongside the mother of the girl he killed.
“In 20 years, I’ve watched human tragedy unfold in this courtroom,” Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Ellen Sue Venzer said. “I could have never imagined a victim’s mother embracing her child’s killer.”
Guzman-DeJesus told reporters afterward that it’s what she believes her daughter would have wanted her to do.
“We can make a change to help other children,” she said. "That was Jina’s friend, too, and I know she wouldn’t want the worst."
Venzer was the driving force behind the plea deal. Several weeks ago, she met with lawyers in the case, Lourdes’ mother and Howe in a private and emotional meeting in her chambers. It was there that Howe apologized and they hugged for the first time.
On Tuesday, Guzman-DeJesus – who has three other children – stood in court flanked by her lawyer, Ron Book, a high-profile lobbyist who also serves as a victim’s advocate. He said the family had undergone intense therapy, and had come to realize the plea “meets the best needs of the community.”
“It’s important for people to understand that handguns are dangerous weapons,” Book said.
Guzman-DeJesus, shaking and barely able to speak, tried to read a statement during the hearing but could only get through a few sentences. Book finished for her.
“She will never have opportunity to have a child, to bear me a grandchild, because of stupid gun violence,” her letter said.
Lourdes Guzman-DeJesus attended Palm Glades Preparatory Academy, while Howe attended Somerset Academy Silver Palms. But they rode the same bus to school.
One day in November 2012, took his stepfather’s pistol from its hiding place in the bedroom closet and brought it to school. He wasn’t facing any threats or bullies. He just wanted to show off the weapon to friends.
Howe boarded the school bus outside the gated Waterstone gated community in Homestead, walked to the back and allowed a friend to “rack” the gun, or pull and release the sliding mechanism that loads a bullet.
After a while, Howe took the gun and put in his waistband. One witnesses told police that Lourdes then began “playing with it,” pulling the trigger and aiming around “like pretending.”
Howe took the gun back, pointed it at the floor and pulled the trigger. No discharge. But then, with one hand, Howe lifted the gun toward Guzman-DeJesus and pulled the trigger.
The bullet struck the girl in the neck. Chaos erupted on the bus.
Lourdes was rushed to Miami Children's Hospital, where doctors pronounced her dead. Howe immediately confessed, pleading guilty to manslaughter with a deadly weapon, possession of a firearm by a minor and carrying a concealed weapon.
Under the plea deal, Howe was adjudicated as a juvenile, not an adult. He’ll be sent to the Avon Park Youth Academy for a year, where he will have to complete vocational training.
After he finishes there, Howe will remain under the supervision of the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice until he reaches 21 years of age.
Until then, Howe will have to undergo psychological counseling, random drug testing, maintain full-time employment or schooling — and cooperate with detectives investigating any additional charges in the case.
Howe will have to speak to schools at least 12 times a year.
“I hope and pray you do not squander this opportunity you’ve been given,” Venzer told Howe.