DENVER - A woman collapsed inside a Denver courtroom on Thursday shortly after a judge gave her 10 years in prison for a hit-and-run crash that killed an 86-year old man.
Once Latoya Nelson regained her footing with the help of a number of Denver sheriff's deputies, she was led out of the courtroom in handcuffs as friends and family in the audience sobbed uncontrollably.
The dramatic episode marked the end of an emotional hearing in which the victim's family showed up en masse to show their support for the man everyone called "Charlie."
Charles Herrera, 85, was killed on March 27, 2013, as he was driving home to deliver groceries to his wife of 63 years. Mary Herrera had just gotten out of the hospital at the time. Nelson slammed into Charlie Herrera's car at the intersection of West 13th Avenue and Kalamath Street shortly after she ran a red light.
After good Samaritans helped her out of her damaged car, Nelson fled on foot.
Herrera had 4 children, 9 grandchildren, and more than 20 great grandchildren. Many of them showed up in court wearing orange shirts with Charlie's picture in the front. Herrera's favorite team, by far, was the Denver Broncos.
"It feels like it just happened yesterday or last week," said Charlie's son John shortly before the hearing. "We will never forget what happened."
John Herrera said Charlie was the glue that held his entire family together. At Christmas or during many of the family's many birthdays, they would all show up at Charlie's and Mary's home that's located just a few blocks away from where the hit-and-run happened.
"[Dad] would go from one seat to another and talk to everybody just to see how everybody was doing," said John Herrera. "He's probably looking down from Heaven (right now) and saying, 'The family is altogether. We're all together again.'"
Charlie had been the victim of a hit-and-run earlier in his life. Police never were able to find the person who hit him while he was walking close to his home. He ended up breaking both legs.
"He was small in stature, but big in heart," said his granddaughter Angela Robbins. "He touched many lives and will be greatly missed."
Mary Herrera was in the audience during Thursday's sentencing hearing and asked a grandson to read a statement to the judge. It said, in part, "I miss him terribly.... In the beginning it was hard for me to sleep. I'd often get up and cry. My children would sit with me, and cry and comfort me."
Latoya Nelson tearfully apologized to the Herrera family during the hearing. "I am very, very sorry from the bottom of my heart," she said as she looked into the sea of orange T-shirts on the opposite side of the courtroom. "I made a mistake, and I am so sorry. I'm asking for forgiveness even though it seems like a lot right now - a little too much to ask for," she said.
John Herrera said his family has already forgiven Nelson, but they will never erase it from their minds.
"How can we ask to be forgiven, if we can't forgive?" he said. "So we must forgive."
Juanita Webster, Charlie's granddaughter, said the entire ordeal has brought an already close family together even more.
"Somewhere, up there, my grandfather is watching us, and is glad that his family is here," she said. "I think he's up there smiling and saying, 'This is my family.'"
Nelson had pleaded guilty to leaving the scene of an accident involving death, and faced a maximum of 10 years under the terms of the pre-arranged plea agreement.
Friends said she had spent most of her formative years going from foster home to foster home. It was an environment the judge even admitted subjected her to sexual abuse as early as the age of 3. Still, the judge said Nelson's previous felony conviction and the fact that she ran away from the scene warranted the maximum sentence.
Denver Deputy District Attorney Kelly Waidler concurred. "Latoya Nelson - the cause of the accident - made the choice to run thinking only of herself," she told Judge Edward Bronfin.