Three years after her son’s death, a mother gets justice. And it still feels empty. | Helen Ubiñas
One Philadelphia mother finally gets the justice she sought in the name of her murdered son.
In the end, it took 12 minutes for a judge to sentence the man who killed Lisa Espinosa’s son.
Of course, that’s not counting the two hours she and supporters waited outside the courtroom Tuesday after elevator problems held up the proceedings while people huffed it up 11 flights of stairs, or the excruciating day in May when a court-wide computer glitch delayed the sentencing the first time even after she and other loved ones had delivered their emotional victim-impact statements, or the 50-plus times, by her count, that she went to court for every case listing, nearly every status update, and every opportunity to remind the killer and the system that fails so many of these grieving families of the pain that endures.
She described it this way in her first victim-impact statement: “Agonizing, heart-wrenching pain that feels like my chest is on fire.”
I’ve shared many details of the anguish Espinosa and her family have suffered since Raymond Pantoja was shot to death on April 10, 2016, outside a nightclub at B Street and Allegheny Avenue in Kensington after a fight.
This may be Espinosa’s story, but it is a sobering reminder of many other families of homicide victims in Philadelphia — at least the lucky ones.
Most never get any type of justice, which is why, despite moving to Arizona seven months ago to care for her ailing mother, Espinosa organized a protest last week outside Philadelphia Police Headquarters to highlight the city’s staggering number of unsolved murders.
There is no lack of rallies and protests in this city, but if anything is ever going to change, it is crucial to hold accountable every part of a system that fails grieving families of homicide victims — starting with police and including the District Attorney’s Office, the courts, and the press, which still too often reduces murders and victims to briefs headlined, “Another deadly day in the city.”
In court Tuesday, Espinosa asked to speak one more time. Months had passed since she delivered her victim-impact statement in May, and she wanted to remind the judge of her family’s loss.
This time she told the judge a story about her 9-year-old granddaughter, Johanna Nazzario Pantoja, who is Pantoja’s only daughter.
Jojo, as the family calls her, was exhausted after a summer day playing with cousins and was going to bed when she suddenly turned to Espinosa.
“Grandma,” she asked, “the person that killed Daddy is going to go to jail for a long time?”
Espinosa told her granddaughter she needn’t worry. The defendant had agreed to a sentence of 15 to 30 years for third-degree murder. The little girl was safe, she was loved, and Espinosa would be there to represent her father at any future court date or parole hearing.
Jojo started counting on her fingers. By the time the man who killed her father would be eligible for release according to a plea deal, she’d be grown.
“I will stand next to you to tell them I wasn’t able to grow up with my father because he killed him,” she said. “You don’t have to stand alone.”
Facing Common Pleas Court Judge Rose Marie DeFino-Nastasi, Espinosa said that the bullet that killed her son also shattered the worlds of everyone he loved, especially his daughter.
The judge chastised Giovany Perales, 33, for bringing a gun to a fistfight. The question after so many of these senseless murders, she said, is: Where do all these guns come from? The answer is that some probably came from Perales. When police arrested the man whose record made it illegal for him to have a firearm, he was in possession of multiple assault weapons and 299 grams of crack.
The judge sentenced him to 14 to 28, with five years’ probation.
A gift. An outrage, really.
When Espinosa spoke Tuesday, she started with a question of her own:
“How do I begin, and how do I end?”
The grieving mother ended the same way she began, mourning her son and seeking justice that, even when delivered in some small way, never feels like enough.