Mercedes Ayers, 17, was sentenced to five years of probation by Judge William Syler after pleading guilty last month to third-degree assault that was elevated to a felony charge because a hate crime designation was added. Ayers swore until the day she pleaded guilty that the attack hadn't happened the way that Terry claimed.
Syler could have sentenced Ayers, who was certified as an adult to face the charges, to up to four years. Instead, he added conditions to her probation, including full restitution of Terry's medical bills, a directive to finish her education and to attend counseling for anger management and for tolerating those with alternative lifestyles.
Both defendant and victim would have their say in court, but it was Syler's admonition, perhaps, that resonated the loudest to Ayers.
"It's your age that is keeping you out of prison at this point," Syler told her.
Ayers was warned by the longtime judge that she was getting her "last chance" in his courtroom and that the words that he had written on her file would remind him of that fact.
"You see this?" he said, holding up the file for her to see. "It says zero tolerance."
Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle recommended to the judge that Ayers receive probation and also asked for those conditions. Both the judge and Swingle acknowledged that Ayers age had something to do with their leniency.
"If she were just a few years older, I'd be standing here asking you to send her to prison," Swingle said.
Before the sentence was handed down, Jeana Terry had her chance to read from a 10-page statement she had prepared. In it, she said she was not sure how she felt about Ayers receiving probation with no prison time. She said that Ayers and the others who beat her don't appreciate what they have put her through.
With Terry's partner, Lisa Lang, weeping in the gallery, Terry went on to describe dizziness caused by the head trauma and the pain that would make brushing her teeth or tying her shoes difficult. The beating put her in the hospital and caused her to miss work.
At some points, it seemed too much to bear, she said.
She even admitted that she wondered if "maybe it wouldn't have been better if they had killed me that day."
Ultimately, though, Terry said she just wanted to feel safe again.
In the three months that have passed, though, Terry said the dizzy spells have resided and she's starting to feel some of the confidence Ayers stole from her returning.
She again asked Ayers to become the person she should be, not one full of hate and anger.
For her part, Ayers did appear to show remorse, something Terry said that had been absent.
"I apologize for everything," Ayers said, tears streaming down her face. "I wouldn't cause any more pain like that, not intentionally. And I'm going to do my best to change my ways."
She also promised the judge that she intended to finish high school. Her public defender, Jennifer Slone, also told the judge that she believes Ayers is about to change course. When Slone first met her young client, Ayers told her that she wanted to go to college and on to dental school.
"It is not a likelihood, but a certainty that this is a turning point for Mercedes," Slone said.
Still, Syler displayed a bit of skepticism, saying he was not convinced.
"Because of your age," Syler said, "I'm not really certain that you understand how serious this is."
Ayers interjected, insisting that she did.
Said Syler: "That is yet to be determined."
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