When everyone in the home falls asleep, Jessica Carter sobs silently. She holds her breath and grabs her stomach, trying to keep quiet.
The pit in her throat has returned many nights since her brother, Terry, was killed three years ago. He had a deep love for cars but ended up dying under the wheels of a truck. In her darkest moments, she said, her older brother’s voice comes to her with encouragement: “Keep it pushing, Jessica Carter.”
“He will be extremely missed,” she said, her voice cracking as she spoke Thursday in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom. A few feet to her left, her brother’s convicted killer, former rap mogul Marion “Suge” Knight, sat at the defense table.
Toward the end of the hearing, Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen addressed her and other relatives and friends. “My heart goes out to you,” he said. Family members cried softly.
The judge then sentenced Knight, co-founder of Death Row Records, one of rap’s groundbreaking labels, to 28 years in prison for killing Terry Carter during a hit-and-run at a Compton burger stand.
The hit-and-run, which authorities say followed a dispute on the set of a commercial for the film “Straight Outta Compton,” was captured by a surveillance camera at Tam’s Burgers on Jan. 29, 2015. The video shows Knight backing his pickup truck over one man, Cle “Bone” Sloan, who survived, pulling forward and driving over Sloan again, and then fatally striking Carter before driving off.
The former hip-hop impresario, who was out on bail in connection with a 2014 robbery case at the time, turned himself in to authorities the next day. He originally pleaded not guilty, saying he’d acted in self-defense.
Knight, 53, and his lawyers have described Carter — a Compton native who over the years built custom lowriders and produced music — as Knight’s longtime friend. But Carter’s widow, Lillian, disputed the characterization, saying the two men knew each other through business circles but hadn’t been close in years.
Had he been convicted of murder at trial, Knight faced up to life in prison. As part of Knight’s deal, prosecutors agreed to dismiss his two other pending criminal matters — the 2014 robbery case and an indictment accusing him of criminally threatening the director of “Straight Outta Compton.”
In the threats case, authorities said Knight was frustrated that he was not paid for the use of his likeness in the film, which chronicles the rise of the seminal rap group N.W.A.
Before Thursday’s hearing, Lillian Carter joined hands with relatives and prayed. The group, some wearing T-shirts that read “jusTiCe,” with Terry Carter’s initials capitalized, then walked silently into the courtroom, filling a row of seats. Knight’s family followed, sitting in a row behind them.
Knight, dressed in orange jail scrubs and wearing a cross necklace, smiled at his sister and his father as he walked into the courtroom. When Carter’s brother-in-law, Damu Vusha, got up to speak, Knight swiveled in his chair to face him.
Reading from a letter written by his wife, Vusha described Carter as a kind, cool and generous spirit — the type of guy who offered to buy the couple’s daughter her first car. A man whose low-key presence could defuse tension. A true peacemaker.
Vusha told the judge he hoped that Knight got the maximum sentence and that he would volunteer in prison to work with HIV and cancer patients — somewhere, Vusha said, “where love is on the menu.”
When one of Carter’s daughters, Nekaya, 38, walked to the lectern, she took several deep breaths and asked the judge for a few moments before she began.
Every person who met her father — “TC,” she called him — had a special bond with him, she said. Since her father died, Nekaya added, she has attended 94 different court proceedings.
“I’ve always wanted justice for my dad, and now we’ve finally gotten it,” she said, pausing. “Kind of.”
One question lingers in her mind, she said: What happened in those seconds before the truck barreled over her father — those seconds captured on film that she has seen and can never unsee? She told Knight that she’d like to hear from him what happened and that she may visit him in prison.
A few minutes later, Jessica Carter read the judge a letter from her brother’s widow, who sat silently in the courtroom. In the letter, Lillian Carter praised her junior high school boyfriend turned husband of 29 years as an amazing partner and father. The man who loved to take her out to dinner — “date night,” he called it — and gave their daughters nicknames, “Daddy’s Girls 1 and 2.” Now, when you type her husband’s name into Google, she wrote, you don’t see videos of their wedding or of their grandchild’s graduation. Instead, you see articles and videos of his gruesome death.
“By God’s grace I am surviving, not living, just surviving,” she wrote.
Knight stared ahead expressionless when he was sentenced.
During a news conference after the hearing, Nekaya Carter said she doesn’t believe Knight has shown any remorse for killing her father; instead, she said, the defendant has often made himself the victim.
“Not only have we had to deal with the loss of our loved one,” she said, “but everything we say, everything we do — if we winced, if we cried — it’s a headline.”
Knight’s defense attorney, Albert DeBlanc Jr., told The Times he and his client are satisfied with the conclusion. It was the “best resolution,” the attorney said, noting that the two other criminal cases have now been dismissed.
“That’s called clearing the board,” DeBlanc said.
Toward the end of the hearing, Carter’s cousin Patricia Hawkins told the judge that she believes in the justice system — she worked for years, she said, as a federal police officer. But in this case, she said, 28 years doesn’t feel like long enough. Her cousin will never leave his coffin.
“I hope and I pray that we can find forgiveness,” she said, pausing. “But it won’t be today.”