It was the kind of argument that could crop up any time between a mother and a teenage son.
Anthony Tyrone Terrell, then 17, broke the rules by inviting a girl over to his Lawrenceville house without supervision on Feb. 28, 2008. But instead of resulting in a shouting match or slamming door, it ended with the slaying of his mother, Joy Deleston, who was a Gwinnett County sheriff's deputy, and her two young daughters.
Terrell pleaded guilty to murder charges Friday and was sentenced to back-to-back life terms. He apologized and said he wished he could trade his life for the lives of the departed. But he was hard-pressed to explain how an argument so trivial could prompt a reaction so brutal.
"I never planned what happened that day," Terrell said, his voice even as he read a prepared statement before Superior Court Judge Debra Turner. "My mom and I got into a disagreement and things just spiraled out of control."
Prosecutors said after the pair argued Terrell retrieved his mother's service handgun and shot her twice.
Terrell's half-sister Micaiah was an 11-year-old whom relatives described as happiest when she was reading a book. She saw her mom get shot and started screaming. Terrell turned and fired several times, killing her. Then he went upstairs to find 4-year-old Jelani, a talkative, inquisitive child who Terrell affectionately called his "homie," relatives said. He kissed her and then shot her twice in the chest.
Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said Terrell told investigators he killed her because he didn't want her to grow up without a mother.
Terrell said he considered committing suicide next.
"That night my plan was to take my own life, but in the end I was unable to shoot myself," Terrell said.
The court heard testimony from Dominic Ross, the father of Micaiah, and from Mildred Richardson, Deleston's mother. Both said they forgave Terrell and that they loved him.
The rapper Juvenile, whose real name is Terius Gray, fathered Jelani. He did not attend the hearing. Juvenile did not respond to attempts to contact him by mail at three different addresses or through his management company, Porter said.
Richardson said she learned her daughter had been shot when a law enforcement officer came to her home near Charleston, S.C.
"I thought maybe a robbery had gone on, and Joy being the person she is, that she stepped in to help somebody," Richardson said. "I thought ‘Oh boy, what has she gotten herself into?'"
It wasn't until she arrived in Georgia that she learned her granddaughters were also dead, and that her grandson was the culprit.
Richardson begged the judge to give Terrell one life sentence, instead of two, because he would be eligible for parole sooner.
"In my heart, I know he didn't mean to do this," she said.
Richardson became overwrought after the hearing, prompting a deputy to bring in a medical kit and close the courtroom for about 15 minutes while relatives tended to her.
Defense attorney Lyle Porter, who is not related to the district attorney, acknowledged the frustration of many in the community who struggled to understand why the murders occurred. He said he believes Terrell's emotions went out of control in an instant and his actions after shooting his mother stemmed from a feeling of hopelessness.
"It's a tragedy all the way around and I think it's beyond comprehension," he said. "I don't think anybody will leave this courtroom with any better understanding."
Sheriff Butch Conway issued a statement saying justice had been served, "even though it can never bring back Joy and her two beautiful little girls."
"I believe two life sentences will give him plenty of time to think about what he did to his family and to the grieving family members and friends who were left to deal with his actions," Conway said.