CANTON — Angela McNabb dangled a necklace from her hand that contained some of the cremated remains of her 18-year-old son, Eryc Higgins, who was fatally shot.
Tears flowed as she struggled to speak to the 22-year-old man across the courtroom who ended Higgins' life. Isaiah Sanders gazed back in his red jail clothing from a seat next to his defense attorney.
"This is all I have left of my son," McNabb said.
Moments later, she continued, her voice still grappling with emotion. "Every morning when I rise, my first thought is something is missing, that hug, that kiss is gone."
After the events of Aug. 30, 2016, when Sanders fatally shot both Higgins, of Akron, and 35-year-old Joshua Weatherspoon, of Canton, her life has been irrevocably shaken. "I'm not the same woman I used to be," said McNabb, who is from Akron but now living in Michigan. "You took from me what I carried in my womb. I created him, and you had no right to take him from me."
McNabb was among several relatives of Higgins or Weatherspoon who addressed Sanders before he was sentenced to 45 years to life in prison Monday by Stark County Common Pleas Court Judge Frank Forchione. Sanders was facing a maximum of 50 years to life in prison while factoring in the merging of some of the charges and firearm specifications for sentencing purposes, defense attorney Wayne Graham had said prior to the proceeding.
Sanders was convicted on Thursday by a jury of two counts of murder and felonious assault, as well as single counts of attempted kidnapping and tampering with evidence. Five firearm specifications also were attached to the charges because a gun was used in the commission of the offenses.
Referring to inconsistencies between Sanders' statements to police and his trial testimony, Forchione said, "You've told more different stories than Dr. Seuss."
Stark County prosecutors said the deaths of Weatherspoon and Higgins were the result of a botched plan by Sanders, Higgins and Brooke Clemons, the mother of Weatherspoon's three young children, to restrain Weatherspoon with zip-ties, drive him somewhere outside Canton and beat him up. Forchione described that plot as "delusional, bizarre and naive."
Forchione also pointed out that Sanders had testified untruthfully to a Stark County grand jury when prosecutors had sought his assistance in the investigation. The defendant also rejected a plea offer last week of 25 years in prison before he was eligible for parole.
Dennis Barr, an assistant Stark County prosecutor, read a letter from Weatherspoon's mother, Gwendolyn Weatherspoon, who could not attend the sentencing hearing because she lives out of state.
She wrote of searching for the words to express to the person who is responsible for "extinguishing a bright light in your life."
Weatherspoon's mother also described the pain of family members who loved and adored him and have been robbed of making new memories.
"I wonder how long my granddaughter will have nightmares ... (and) how long she will ask for her papa," Weatherspoon wrote.
The defendant's mother
Prior to rendering his decision, Forchione also had heard from Sanders' mother, Victorya Sanders, and others who addressed the court on the defendant's behalf.
The mother told the court aspects of her son that were not part of testimony from police, a forensic pathologist and other investigators.
Victorya Sanders also described the struggles that her son had faced when he was a child, including being raised by her as a single mother. She said Isaiah's father wasn't involved in his life.
"Isaiah is far from socially developed," she said, describing him as being "childlike in his thoughts" regarding his decisions leading up to the shootings. She also referenced her son having been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder.
As a child, Isaiah often helped others, Victorya Sanders said. He also was in his school's ROTC program and was a talented musician and played keyboards in the school band. Isaiah also had worked as a lifeguard and wanted to become an emergency medical technician (EMT) because of his "desire to help people."
But the mother said her son had become addicted to marijuana in high school and started to hang around with people who were bad influences.
Listening to his mother speak, the son bowed his head, adjusted his glasses and clenched a tissue in his hand.
Victorya Sanders asked Forchione not to issue the maximum prison terms on the individual charges. "I respect your courtroom," she told the judge. "And I'm asking for mercy."
She also asked the judge to allow the defendant to get the help she said he needs for mental health issues while he serves his time in prison. To the victims' families, she concluded, "I do apologize. I'm so sorry."
Moments before learning he would have to serve 45 years in prison until he's eligible for parole, Sanders apologized to the loved ones of victims.
Sanders cried when recalling Higgins. And he said he went to trial despite knowing he was risking a sentence of decades in prison.
"I needed the family to hear (what happened)," he said. "That I'm not just the killer of my own best friend, that I'm not just evil, and I'm fully remorseful for the situation that has happened, and your honor, I throw myself at the mercy of the court."
The role of Brooke Clemons
During his cross examination on the witness stand, Sanders altered details and portions of his statements to police regarding the events surrounding the Aug. 30, 2016 shooting deaths of Higgins and Weatherspoon, according to prosecutors.
Sanders, however, did not dispute that he fired five gunshots from a handgun, striking both men in the head and wounding other body parts. When police and medics arrived around 9 a.m. at the Midway Avenue home, the men were dead, according to testimony.
Barr and Joe Vance, both assistant county prosecutors, presented the case to jurors. Barr reiterated Monday that he was not at liberty to discuss why Clemons was not a witness in Sanders' trial and whether she faces criminal charges.
At Monday's sentencing hearing, McNabb, Eryc Higgins' mother, directed comments at Clemons.
"The only way that I would even have closure today is if I was talking to Brooke as well (and) sending her to prison," McNabb said, her voice escalating.
Sanders testified he had met Clemons while delivering a refrigerator to her mother's house in Canton. Sanders said he and Clemons had become involved in a relationship for a few weeks prior to the shootings. He also testified Weatherspoon had threatened to harm him if he returned to the Midway Avenue home where Clemons lived. Sanders is from Georgia and was living in Akron prior to the shootings, according to testimony.
Under direct questioning from Graham, the defense attorney, Sanders testified he never intended to kill Weatherspoon or Sanders' friend, Higgins. A scuffle ensued between Higgins and Weatherspoon, Sanders testified. He said Weatherspoon had one hand around Higgins' throat. Sanders also said he feared that Weatherspoon was reaching into his pocket for a gun.
A gun never was found on Weatherspoon, according to testimony. Sanders testified he used a handgun belonging to Weatherspoon to shoot the two men. The gun was found in the Midway Avenue home, Sanders testified.
During closing arguments, Graham told jurors his client was trying to right a wrong because Sanders didn't like the way Weatherspoon treated Clemons. Barr, of the prosecutor's office, strongly disputed that contention and said Sanders' actions clearly constituted murder under the law.
Ed Balint is a staff reporter at The Canton Repository.