Josh Marer stood in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom and recalled how he and his stepsister had sat together on their bedroom floor one night nearly 15 years ago, playing a board game before bedtime.
The typically sunny 4-year-old girl with golden curls played through tears, he said. She soon quit and stormed out of the room, kicking the game over on her way out.
Marer, then 10, followed his stepsister and asked her what was wrong.
"I think I'm going to die tomorrow," he recalled her telling him.
The following day, Lauren Sarene Key plunged to her death from a Rancho Palos Verdes bluff onto the jagged rocks and water 120 feet below.
Marer on Friday asked Los Angeles Superior Court Judge George G. Lomeli to show no mercy to the man convicted earlier this year of tossing her over the cliff: her father, Cameron Brown. Lauren was happy until her father began to see her and play a role in her life, Marer said.
"She was never mad until she met Cameron Brown," Marer told the judge. "I could have done more to protect her, to save her."
Brown, 53, sat expressionless in orange jailhouse scrubs as the judge sentenced him to life in prison without the possibility of parole for the murder of his daughter.
His sentencing marked the end of a lengthy prosecution spanning more than a decade. In two earlier trials, juries deadlocked over whether Brown, a former airport baggage handler, intentionally threw his daughter or whether her fall was a tragic accident. A third jury convicted him of first-degree murder in May.
During all three trials, Deputy Dist. Atty. Craig Hum described Brown as a coldhearted, vindictive man who never wanted the child and killed her to avoid paying child support and to hurt her mother.
In court Friday, Hum turned to Lauren's mother, Sarah Key-Marer, as she and family members in the audience wept.
"I can't imagine what you've been through the last 15 years," he said. "You bore it with dignity, strength and never lost faith that some day this moment would come."
Then, pivoting toward Brown, pausing and shaking his head, the prosecutor raised his voice.
"She was 4 years old!" he said.
Key-Marer told the judge that Lauren was unfairly caught up in squabbles between her and Brown. The two dated only a few weeks before Key-Marer became pregnant. Brown, she said, could never accept that the girl was part of his life.
"It didn't need to end like this for her," she said.
She told the court that she misses "the warmth of her skin and her crystal blue eyes" and how when she tickled Lauren she would laugh so hard tears would stream down the girl's cheeks.
She turned, looking toward Brown at the defense table: "Mr. Brown, you'll never take her memory from us."
Brown said nothing during the court hearing. During his trials, his attorneys argued that he cared for his daughter and that the girl had been playing near the cliff's edge when she slipped and fell to her death.
After Brown was escorted out of the courtroom, the scene in the hallway outside quickly became heated.
As Key-Marer exited the courtroom, Patricia Brown, who identified herself as Cameron Brown's wife, and her brother told reporters that the girl's death was a tragedy but that Cameron Brown was innocent and loved his daughter.
Key-Marer then approached Patricia Brown, and asked her if she had anything to say to her.
"You know as well as anybody that it wasn't a homicide!" Brown said, raising her voice.
The prosecutor stepped between them, shouting, "You don't have to listen to this crap!" as he led Key-Marer away.
Patricia Brown and her brother then repeatedly approached Hum, attempting to speak to him as he shouted, "Step away, sir! Step away from me!"
Sheriff's Det. Jeffrey Leslie, who investigated the case from the day of the girl's death, moved between the men and the tension subsided.
A few minutes later, Key-Marer said she was only searching for an apology to her family. She was not surprised that Cameron Brown was silent and appeared unmoved during the sentencing hearing.
"It saddens me that he would have no emotion," she said. "He doesn't show any remorse."
For more court news, follow @sjceasar.