JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Clutching framed photos of her slain daughter in court Thursday, the mother of Shelby Farah finally heard what she had been waiting nearly four years to hear: James Rhodes admitted to killing Shelby in cold blood.
Rhodes, 25, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and other charges in the 20-year-old Metro PCS clerk's death. A judge accepted the plea, and Rhodes was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
"I don't have to go back in court to face the person that took her life away," Shelby's mother, Darlene Farah, said after the hearing. "It's over."
The odyssey began on July 20, 2013, when Rhodes went to the Brentwood cellphone store where Shelby was working and robbed her at gunpoint. Prosecutors said she cooperated with Rhodes, but that after she handed him the last bit of money, he fired four rounds, killing her.
Detectives arrested Rhodes at a bus stop off Atlantic Boulevard days later, after receiving tips from his relatives that he was the shooter. Investigators said Rhodes confessed after hours of questioning.
In addition to the first-degree murder charge, Rhodes pleaded guilty Thursday to armed robbery, aggravated assault and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon.
Rhodes' murder trial had been delayed four times while Judge Tatiana Salvador awaited guidance from the state Supreme Court on challenges to the death penalty, which former State Attorney Angela Corey refused to drop despite requests from Rhodes' public defender for a plea deal and repeated pleas from Darlene Farah.
Farah said the resolution won't bring her daughter back but might let her finally rest in peace.
“She wasn't only my daughter, she was my best friend. We did everything together,” Farah said of Shelby. “All he had to do was walk away.”
Farah and her two surviving children were in the courtroom Thursday, along with newly elected State Attorney Melissa Nelson, who approved the plea agreement that dropped the death penalty.
“I feel very strongly that this resolution ensures the safety of the public. It brings finality to a case that has been litigated for almost four years, and it provides certainty in the outcome. Very importantly, it respects the wishes of Darlene Farah,” Nelson said. “I was troubled that (with) my predecessor ... the relationship between Darlene and her office had become so strained. It was important to me to make sure that even if we disagree with Darlene, that she and her children felt that the office was respecting them and listening to them.”
Shelby's mother has been front and center since the case began, even vowing to camp outside police headquarters until a suspect was arrested.
After the hearing, she said she and her surviving children can now begin the healing process.
"It will give me a little peace, but the main thing is, I feel like it would help my children," she said.
Darlene Farah wept Thursday as she and her children offered victim impact statements during sentencing.
“I feel like you just ripped my life out from under me,” Farah said to Rhodes. "I brought Shelby into this world, and you took her out."
Rhodes broke down sobbing several times and once collapsed to the floor (watch video), prompting a recess, after Farah said she was so angry at one point that she wanted to "take you out myself in the courtroom," but that she had since forgiven Rhodes and that she hopes he seeks forgiveness from God.
"You get to pick up the phone and talk to who you want. I can't talk to my daughter," Farah said. "I talk to her at the cemetery."
After they returned from the recess, Farah explained to Rhodes that she forgave him about a year after he killed Shelby. She told News4Jax after the hearing that forgiveness was something she had to choose.
"It was like I kept running and didn't want to look back and face the fact that my daughter wasn't going to walk through the front door again. It was like a ton of bricks lifted off my shoulders when I forgave him," Farah said.
During her testimony, Farah pulled out a card that Rhodes sent her on her last birthday. In it, he thanked her for fighting to spare his life. She said she was really fighting for what was right.
"If you had crossed paths with us before Shelby's murder, we would have tried to help you,” Farah said.
She said her daughter was a peacemaker and had lost friends to gun violence. She said Shelby would not have wanted Rhodes to die.
Shelby’s mother said she and the rest of her family can now focus on remembering Shelby, a special young woman taken away too soon.
“One thing Shelby always said, 'You always want to make tomorrow better than what today was,'” Farah said. “She will never be forgotten. Never. I think this is one of those stories that I don't think anybody will forget.”
Farah said she believes Rhodes is remorseful but that he still must pay for what he did.
"There's a lot of kids out there who've had rough childhoods. They don't go around killing people," she said. "He was old enough to know wrong from right."
Farah said she’s not finished battling what she calls a broken system and will take her fight to Tallahassee. She said there needs to be a better way to handle repeat offenders and keep young people out of crime. She also wants to establish a foundation in Shelby’s honor.
Now that the case is over, Farah said, she plans to meet with Rhodes one-on-one Wednesday to talk about what happened. She has never spoken to him except from a courtroom witness stand, and she said she's been told he wants to apologize to her in person.
“I don't want him to go to prison angry. I want him to try to change people’s lives that come through there,” Farah said. “And he can do it.”