With his wrists shackled to his waist, Adrian Berumen stood up in court Monday afternoon and began to apologize before the judge interrupted him.
“Face them, sir,” Judge Laura L. Laesecke said, motioning to the family of Christopher Waters sitting in the audience.
In 2013, then 17-year-old Berumen had beaten Waters with a miniature baseball bat, strangled him with an electrical cord and burned his body in the Palos Verdes hills with the help of a Poly High School classmate. Prosecutors say the pair did this to steal a few hundred dollars from Waters, which they used to hail a cab and go on a shopping spree at a Lakewood mall.
Berumen’s co-conspirator, Jose Angel Martinez, was convicted in 2013 of first-degree murder, but Waters’ family said they’d been waiting more than eight years for closure in Berumen’s case.
He was the accused ringleader, but his hearings had dragged on for almost a decade. He’d been fighting a first-degree murder charge, but on the eve of trial last week, Berumen entered a surprise guilty plea. Now, Waters’ family was hoping to hear true remorse.
At Judge Laesecke’s request Monday, Berumen turned to look at them.
“I know that my words can’t change things,” he said. “But I am sorry for all the pain that I caused you today, and the past few years.”
It was a “lukewarm” apology, according to Waters’ family, but “I could tell he was torn up,” sister Jennifer said. She hopes it was heartfelt.
Berumen’s words likely won’t make any difference in his fate. His admission to first-degree murder means the law requires he be given 25 years to life in prison at his sentencing in April. Prosecutors offered Berumen a deal for 19 to life in October, but Laesecke blocked that deal after Waters’ family objected.
They wanted the highest level of admission from Berumen, insisting he plead to first-degree murder, not second.
“What is the worth of an innocent human life?” Cora Klahn, Waters’ mother asked when she spoke at Monday’s hearing. She recalled her son’s warm smile and contagious baritone laugh. Chris Waters quickly endeared himself to anyone he met, she said.
“My hope is that you come to realize the weight of your actions and you do something good with your life,” she told Berumen.
Berumen’s life behind bars has featured prominently in his case. In jail, he’s drawn praise from academics and law enforcement officials alike for his work with mentally ill inmates.
Since 2017, he and another inmate, Craigen Armstrong, have volunteered to live among some of the most mentally ill prisoners at Twin Towers jail in Downtown Los Angeles.
There, they’ve become live-in mentors to their struggling neighbors: reminding them to take medication, helping them shower or brush their teeth, and advising jail clinicians on treatment plans.
Berumen’s attorney, Sean Kennedy, argued his work behind bars is proof that Berumen can be rehabilitated. He’s fought to have the case sent back to juvenile court where it started.
“We just don’t believe that this young person should be in adult court,” said Kennedy, who plans to file an appeal next year when a new law goes into effect allowing him to challenge the decision.
Laesecke had declined to delay Berumen’s case any further, which forced Berumen to go to trial before the law goes into effect on Jan. 1.
Instead of trial, Berumen opted to simply plead guilty, “because he wanted to spare the victims that pain,” Kennedy said.
After Monday’s hearing, Waters’ mother said she felt something had changed. After hearing the details of her son’s death at Martinez’s trial, Klahn said she’d been reliving the details for years.
“Somehow that’s gone now,” she said.
In the courthouse hallway, Klahn went up to Berumen’s mother and hugged her.
She wondered if Martinez or Berumen would ever want to talk to her about what happened.
She’d be open to it, she said, “Chris would want that.”