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In court, a day of sadness & forgiveness in hit-and-run

The mother of Abdul “Latif” Wilson, killed in a hit-and-run accident, forgives the driver at sentencing.

Dominique Lockwood, the mother of Abdul "Latif" Wilson, holds a photo of her and her son as she talks about his death.
Dominique Lockwood, the mother of Abdul "Latif" Wilson, holds a photo of her and her son as she talks about his death.Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer, file

THERE THEY were on Tuesday morning, at opposite sides of Courtroom 1105 in the Criminal Justice Center:

Two young women, each a mom to three children, face to face on the eve of the first anniversary of the worst year of their lives.

Dominique Lockwood, 30, shook as she read a victim-impact statement describing how her life has changed since her angel-faced 4-year-old, Abdul Latif Wilson (his family calls him Latif), was killed by a hit-and-run driver on April 13, 2015, in Southwest Philly.

Across the room, at the defense table, sat the woman who had just been sentenced for Latif's death: Shanika Mason, 28, her face contorted by remorse as she used balls of Kleenex to mop away tears that would not stop.

"Going through this time in my life, I felt like God stripped everything from me, inside and out," said Lockwood, who, despite choking sobs, was eloquent and dignified as she read the three-page statement she'd handwritten in a copybook.

"I look at what now is my past merging into my future. It's a sharp pain that goes through my heart - the very heart my baby boy once listened to as he slept while I kept him safe, healthy and warm in my belly."

Mason lost it. Her cries ricocheted off the walls, chased by those of Lockwood's kin as they let loose 12 months of grief, horror, and regret.

I've sat through a lot of victim-impact statements. This one ranks among the saddest, for the most frustrating of reasons.

That night, Latif was playing outside with his two brothers near 57th and Litchfield Streets when he scampered between parked cars, into the road. A surveillance video caught grainy images of Mason hitting Latif with the rented Ford Edge she was driving; she then slowed for a moment before taking off, but not before running over Latif's limp body. The child died shortly afterward at CHOP of blunt force trauma to his head and body.

Watching the horrific video, it makes no sense that Mason fled.

She had not been speeding, and Latif came out of nowhere. No jury in the world would have convicted her of recklessness.

Nor was Mason a menace fleeing the scene to avoid the consequences of an expired driver's license or outstanding warrant. All her paperwork was current and she had no criminal record.

The reason she fled was simple: She had her kids in her car, and she panicked. After fleeing, she contacted attorney Michael Diamondstein for help. He alerted authorities the next day, but it would not spare Mason the legal ramifications of fleeing.

Had she pulled over, she probably never would have seen the inside of a courtroom. Because not every car accident makes a criminal of its driver. But leaving the scene of a deadly crash does.

So Mason, who pleaded guilty, was sentenced to two to five years in state prison for letting panic overtake decency that night.

But at least decency carried the day in court on Tuesday.

Lockwood and Mason behaved with wrenching grace. And their families, who had been at odds over the last year for obvious reasons, kept their collective cool - perhaps inspired by the comportment of two suffering mothers.

Lockwood spoke at length about being alternately "angry, depressed, miserable, and confused at how my life that was so rich with meaning could seem so useless now."

But Lockwood didn't sound angry. Her words came instead from a place where blame is useless and forgiveness is the only path to peace. And so, she said, she has found a new way to go on, for her own sake and for that of her surviving children, Samaj, 9, and Everett, 6.

"I can only live on by having faith that this very sharp pain that cuts deep down in my heart is just my intelligent baby boy letting me know he didn't go anywhere," she said. "I forgive you, Miss Mason, as hard as it is to say. I have to forgive you so that my own heart can be as pure as my baby's so that I can be with him again one day."

Mason was too overcome with emotion to read her own statement, so Diamondstein, her attorney, read it for her as she wept.

She knew what she had done was wrong and that she should be punished, she said. She wished she could hug Lockwood and say how sorry she was.

By the time Diamondstein finished reading, Mason had regained enough composure to turn to Lockwood and ask, with heartbreaking desperation, "Do you accept my apology?"

"Yes," Lockwood answered, prompting new wails from kin on both sides of this sad, sad case.

After Mason was led away to begin her sentence, Common Pleas Court Judge Lillian Ransom dismissed everyone from the courtroom. Lockwood gathered with family in the hallway outside. She looked spent. They all did.

"I'm glad this part is over," Lockwood told me, adding that she hopes one day, when she is feeling less raw, to visit Mason in prison. She would like to hug her and to apologize that her little boy ran into the street that day. He had slipped out of the house minutes before Lockwood realized he was gone.

She thinks every day about how quickly one small action can upend a life. And she's trying hard to keep her son alive in a new way.

In memory of Latif, she has founded a fledgling nonprofit called Embracing God's Angels. Its mission is to lend a hand to those who've lost loved ones suddenly - perhaps to help pay for a headstone or for a day of pampering in the aftermath of loss.

Its goals are a little fuzzy, but Lockwood feels pressed to do something big and loving with the life that God has given her.

"It is hard. I cry every day for my child. But I have to keep moving forward in forgiveness and goodness," Lockwood said. "My goal is to fulfill the assignment that God has put upon me to fulfill, for however long that may be. And then I will be with my son.

"Latif fulfilled his assignment in four years," she sighed. "He beat me to it."