In a Fresno courtroom Friday, former Fresno County Supervisor Bob Waterston got a new outlook on life, while the man who killed Waterston's brother nearly two decades ago has a shot at freedom.
For years, Waterston said he held on to hatred for the three Fresno youths accused of killing his brother, Kevin Waterston, in September 1995.
On Friday, he had to dredge up those horrible memories in Fresno County Superior Court as Alejandro Gomez, one of two juveniles convicted of murdering Kevin Waterston, had the first of several hearings to determine whether he should be given a lesser prison sentence.
But after meeting Gomez's family at the hearing, a tearful Waterston said he no longer harbors ill will toward the defendant.
"The world is full of hate. It needs to stop," he said.
A judge in November 1996 sentenced Gomez and Frank Delao, both 17 at the time, to life in prison without the possibility of parole. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that such prison sentences for juvenile offenders are cruel and unusual punishment.
Gomez, now 35, has petitioned the court to get his sentence reduced. If successful, he will be the first of several convicted juvenile killers from Fresno County to get a second chance at freedom, authorities said.
Before the hearing, Waterston was firm in his position: Gomez should remain in prison for life.
After the hearing, though, he said he was transformed when Gomez's family reached out to him, told him that Gomez was sorry and then hugged him.
"This is a good family," said Waterston, who had tears rolling down his cheeks. "I thought I was healed a long time ago, but I was wrong. It's time to bury the past."
Crime shocked Fresno
On Sept. 29, 1995, the Fresno community was stunned to learn that Kevin Waterston, 40 and engaged to be married, was shot after he and a neighbor tried to stop a car theft at the downtown Park Terrace Apartments.
Kevin Waterston, who lived in the complex, armed himself to make a citizen's arrest. He had pointed a gun at Gomez, who was behind the wheel of a stolen Cadillac, when he was shot in the head by Delao.
While Gomez and Delao were convicted of the killing, a third juvenile, Thomas Cruz, was acquitted.
At the time, Bob Waterston was a Fresno fire captain and candidate for the Fresno County Board of Supervisors. He would later serve two terms on the board before retiring in January 2009.
Waterston said his brother's killing was a blow to the community because Kevin Waterston was a well-liked county morgue attendant who interacted with police, fire and hospital officials, as well as the public. He recalled seeing police officers, firefighters, nurses, doctors and others crying when they learned Kevin had been shot to death.
"It's horrible to have to relive it," Waterston said, saying it has been especially difficult for his 90-year-old mother, Zenaida Smyth.
Initially, Waterston blamed "liberal politicians" for enacting laws that allow convicted killers to go free. "They make laws without knowing what it does to families who have to live through it," he said.
But prosecutor Douglas Treisman informed Waterston that the nation's highest court has given juvenile killers like Gomez a second chance. He also said Waterston was partly right about new laws that will benefit convicted killers.
"Once upon a time, murder was an irredeemable crime," Treisman said. "Most people believed that if you killed, you should be put away for a long time."
But times are changing, he said.
In addition to the Supreme Court ruling, California legislators have enacted two new laws that give murderers and inmates convicted under the Three Strikes repeat-offender law opportunities to get out of prison much earlier, as long as they don't pose a danger to the community.
In court Friday, Treisman and Judge Jonathan Conklin talked about the complexities of the two new laws.
Conklin said the court has a duty "to make decisions supported by the law" — even if it sparks criticism.
During the legal discussion, Waterston got a good look at Gomez, who appeared clean-cut in his red jail jumpsuit. "He doesn't look like a bum," he said.
He also noticed that Gomez's family was in the courtroom and that Gomez's mother, Beatrice Ontiveros, kept looking at him.
Once the hearing ended, Ontiveros approached Waterston and asked him in broken English: "How is your mother?" She then reminded Waterston that she had hugged Waterston's mother in court when Gomez was convicted so many years ago.
That led to more interaction outside the courtroom, where Ontiveros and her family said Gomez was sorry for killing Kevin Waterston and causing his family grief. "He knows what he did and is grateful to be alive," said Gomez's sister, Lorena Contreras.
Waterston wanted to know what caused Gomez to attempt the crime. He asked if Gomez was a gang member? His relatives said he wasn't in a gang, but had grown up on the tough streets of Calwa.
He told the family that he quit hating Gomez a long time ago, but still harbored anger toward Delao, the shooter. "I never could figure out why Gomez got the same sentence as Delao," Waterston said.
Waterston said his brother's killing was especially painful to his mother because her other son, Kurt, was killed in 1987 when he crossed a picket line at a winery in Fresno County, and fell off a scaffold and hit his head. "They said it was an industrial accident, but I know he was murdered," he said.
Ontiveros said she, too, had a son who died in a suspicious accident in Mexico. She told Waterston that she hoped Alejandro will one day get to come home.
Then one by one, she and her family hugged Waterston, who couldn't hold back his emotions.
"Now I know I am healed," Waterston said, "and it feels good."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6434, firstname.lastname@example.org or @beecourts on Twitter.