Courtroom spectators choked back tears Friday as Kimberly Katona told a judge how her mother had grown up poor, but had lived a remarkable life dedicated to helping others.
"She had a hard life, but a good life," Katona said, noting that her mother, Sally Katona King, had grown up so poor in the household of an alcoholic father that she often went to bed hungry. She was sexually assaulted at eight, and after developing polio had to learn to walk again.
Her husband was murdered, leaving her with three small children at the age of 29.
Katona-King died when a teenage cell phone thief named Prince Watson pushed her down the stairs of the Chicago Transit Authority's Fullerton station after stealing another woman’s iPhone on a Brown Line train in March of 2011.
In court Friday, Watson pled guilty, and was sentenced to 32 years in prison.
"Her life was taken away because one young man valued the price of a stolen iPhone more than respect, safety, and life," Katona told the court, speaking of how her mother had become deacon of her church and had dedicated her life to helping the poor and homeless. She said she was especially sympathetic to those who faced hunger because she had seen it so often as a child.
"She was really a stalwart in the community," said prosecutor Christa Bowden. "She worked with the homeless, the hungry, and was known for her generosity."
Watson’s lawyer argued his client's life had been derailed from its very first moment. Born with drugs and alcohol in his system, Watson saw his mother die of a drug overdose when he was only three, and he dropped out of school in the 9th grade. His only male role models, she said, were in prison.
"His sister was murdered. He had a brother who was killed,” said public defender Susan Smith. "There was just tragedy after tragedy after tragedy in this kid’s life."
Smith argued that stealing phones had become Watson’s "career," and that he chose that type of crime because he believed no one would ever get hurt.
"Even when consequences happened, you’re so stupid when you’re 17, you think it’s never going to happen again," she said.
Indeed, prosecutors noted that Watson was not deterred from his crimes even when he learned someone had died at his hand.
"Prince Watson continued robbing people at CTA stations, endangering their safety, knowing that my mother had died from his actions," Katona said.
Prosecutors conceded the killer’s hard life. But said it hardly justified the woman’s death.
"It’s a reason, not an excuse," Bowden said. "Perhaps that’s why he did the things that he did but he can’t benefit from that. In fact, we need to be protected from people who feel this is the only way they can lead their lives."
In imposing sentence, Judge James Linn said he wished he had known the victim.
"What a gentle, wonderful woman Sally Katona-King must have been," he said. "So very unfair."
- March 2011: Deacon Knocked Down Stairs at El Stop Dies
- April 2011: Funeral Held for Deacon Killed After Fall at CTA Stop
- August 2011: Watson Labeled a "Dangerous Individual"