It seemed to take all of Janice Paggeot's strength Thursday to walk into Pierce County Superior Court and face the young man whose recklessness took the life of her only child.
Paggeot, whose husband died from an illness a few weeks before her son James was killed in a car wreck, could have been forgiven had she chosen to condemn Raymond Joseph Lewis III. Instead, she praised him.
"I really believe RJ deserves the lowest end of the punishment," Paggeot said as Lewis sat nearby, tears streaming down his face. "I really believe in all my heart and all my soul that RJ is a good person and he's a good kid and that one mistake that dreadful night should not ruin the rest of his life."
Minutes earlier, Lewis, 19, pleaded guilty to counts of vehicular homicide and one count of attempting to elude a pursuing police vehicle in the July 31 crash in Tacoma that killed his friends, James Paggeot and Walter Corey.
Prosecutors said Lewis was fleeing police dispatched to a convenience story where Paggeot and Corey had just stolen beer when he lost control of his car and crashed near 64th and McKinley on Tacoma's East Side.
Paggeot, 22, and Corey, 21, died at the scene. Lewis injured his left arm in the crash and ran away. He surrendered to police a few hours later.
Lewis originally was charged with five felonies, but deputy prosecutor John Macejunas dropped two charges after Lewis agreed to take responsibility for his actions.
Macejunas and defense attorney Derek Smith recommended a low-end prison sentence of three years for Lewis, which Judge Bryan Chushcoff imposed. The high end was four years.
The hearing was highly emotional, with nearly 100 people cramming into a small courtroom to witness it. Almost all were there to support Lewis, including dozens of young men and women who cried and hugged throughout the proceeding.
Corey's sister, Sarah Corey, also addressed Chuschcoff before sentencing.
Corey said Lewis, James Paggeot and her brother were best friends.
"It could have easily have been my brother that was the driver," Sarah Corey told the judge.
She then turned her attention to Lewis.
"I know my brother and James would not want you to go to jail," Sarah Corey said, her voice breaking. "There were mistakes made, but you were young kids. Just promise me that you'll be better and safer."
"I do promise you that," Lewis said.
After Macejunas and Smith had their says, Lewis was given a chance to speak.
The former captain of the Spanaway Lake High School football team stood straight and spoke in a clear voice, occasionally pausing to wipe the tears from his eyes.
Lewis said he does not deserve forgiveness.
"Walter Corey and James Paggeot should still be here with us today," he said. "But because of my actions and poor judgment, they no longer are."
Lewis said he'll be haunted by the loss of his friends for the rest of his life and frequently wakes at night in despair.
"Your honor, the last 40 days I've been in jail have been the most constructive of my life," he continued. "It's because I've had the most important things in my life taken away from me: my family, my friends and my freedoms. And, honestly, I was taking them for granted. And it's true that you really don't know what you have until it's gone, and I had to learn that lesson the hard way."
Chushcoff told Lewis he was lucky that the Corey and Paggeot families had shown him kindness and generosity despite their grief. Had Lewis killed an innocent bystander or hurt a police officer during his flight, the story might be different, the judge said.
"I'm not sure those folks would be quite so generous about how much time you should be spending in prison," Chushcoff said.
The judge implored Lewis to lead an honorable life once he's released. He owes it to Paggeot and Corey, Chushcoff said.
"Because if you don't, you're dishonoring these fellows and the generosity of their families," the judge said.
Chushcoff then accepted the low-end sentencing recommendation.
"I do believe the lesson's been learned," he said.