ST. JOSEPH — On what would have been Shimika Hicks' 43rd birthday, her mother asked a Berrien County judge Thursday to keep the man who killed her daughter in prison and throw away the key.

Shimika was just 10 years old when Tommy Richards, 17 at the time, raped and killed her, put her body in garbage bags and dumped her in an abandoned lot in Benton Harbor. The girl's body was found two weeks after she disappeared. 

"I was walking the streets, knocking on doors, looking for her. I couldn't eat, couldn't sleep. I looked out the windows every night until one day somebody came to my door and said they found her," Fiona Byndum, Shimika's mother, told Berrien County Trial Court Judge Angela Pasula. "They wouldn't let me see her."

Byndum testified Thursday on the third day of a hearing for Richards, who is seeking to be re-sentenced. He was convicted of first-degree felony murder in 1987, was handed the mandatory sentence of life in prison without parole, and has served 32 years.

In 2012 the law changed when the U.S. Supreme Court, in the case of Miller vs. Alabama, ruled that an automatic sentence of life without parole for a juvenile is unconstitutional. In 2016, the high court made the ruling retroactive, so prison inmates who were sentenced to life without parole as juveniles can be re-sentenced. But prosecutors can argue for the sentence to again be life without parole.

In 2014 the Michigan Legislature enacted a law that gives judges, when sentencing a juvenile, the choice between life without parole or a term of years. If a term of years, the minimum sentence must be between 25 and 40 years, and a maximum of 60 years. 

"I want you to do whatever you have to do to keep him in jail," Byndum told Jeffrey Taylor, chief trial attorney for the Berrien County Prosecutor's Office. Turning to the judge, the still-grieving mother said, "Don't let him out. Throw away the key."

Byndum ran from the courtroom wailing when Richards' lawyer, Sofia Nelson with the State Appellate Defender Office, said Richards wished to address Shimika's family. Her sisters, who all were younger than her when she was killed, and two cousins, stayed to hear what he had to say.

"Thirty-two years ago I lied to the court, my family, the community and the Hicks family," Richards, now 49, said. "The Hicks family deserved the truth. I was a coward. I was afraid, embarrassed and ashamed."

With his lawyer at his side, he continued, "At 17 I had sex with a 10-year-old child who I manipulated and killed. I was ashamed. I'm still ashamed. I'm still horrified, but I owe Shimika's family the truth."

Stopping at times to wipe his eyes, "During oral sex I held her head down while she struggled and collapsed. I wrapped her head in a plastic bag. I put her body in a bag and placed her in an abandoned lot. She did not deserve to be killed and abandoned. I can't imagine how scared she was."

An autopsy ruled Shimika died of suffocation.

Richards told Shimika's sisters and cousins, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the pain I put you through. I am deeply sorry. There are no excuses for what I did. But the differences in me now are truly real."

Taylor called Richards' crime "horrible, horrific, maybe one of the most horrible crimes ever committed in Berrien County," and said he deserves nothing less than life without parole. Taylor contends that Richards only started being truthful after learning in 2016 that he'd have a chance to be released from prison.

"He faced a tough decision. Continue to deny involvement and never get out, or take his lawyer's advice," Taylor said. 

One of the criteria for a juvenile-lifer to be re-sentenced to a term of years is that he or she be capable of rehabilitation, and that includes accepting responsibility for his or her crimes.

"To be quite honest, it's not sincere," Taylor said of Richards' allocution. "He only addressed the oral sex, and he skips over the rest. He doesn't mention that her teeth were knocked loose, and that she had a vaginal tear, and that when her body was found her clothes were torn and up around her navel. This is a strategy to get out. It's not sincere."

Taylor pointed out that to this day Richards, and doctors who have evaluated him, are unable to explain a reason for what he did. 

"If you as a judge cannot be convinced this won't happen again, the only sentence is life without parole," Taylor told Pasula in his closing argument.

In her closing, Nelson said Richards learned as a child that violence is normal, but he has grown into an adult and developed a value system. 

"He's not perfect but the man he is today is a far cry from who he was then. He chose redemption, and every risk assessment has him at low-risk (of re-offending)," Nelson said. "His family and home environment was horrific and traumatic. He grew up learning violence, cruelty and criminality. What he did was wrong and he knew it, but not the way he knows it today. He was impulsive and selfish."

Nelson said the evidence of his ability to change is "overwhelming." 

Judge Pasula has ordered a written transcript of the three-day hearing, which will take about a month for the court to produce. Lawyers will then be given two weeks to submit briefs, and Pasula will announce her sentencing decision sometime in November.

Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa