Young dad will never be paroled for shooting death of 5-month-old son
'There's still hope,' judge says after imposing life without parole sentence
PROVO — Judge Darold McDade said the decision he announced on Monday had been weighing heavily on his mind for a "long, long time."
His pronouncement regarded the fate of a young depressed father who killed his 5-month-old son earlier this year by shooting him in the head with a .22-caliber rifle.
Ryker Petersen would have turned 1 year old on Wednesday.
McDade decided that Joshua David Peterson, 22, will serve the rest of his life in prison. He will have no possibility of ever being paroled.
The judge said he realized Petersen is young and does not have a criminal history. But he expressed concern that if he was released, he may hurt others.
"Regardless of the situation, there's still hope. I want you to know that," McDade told Petersen.
Members of Petersen's family sat inches away from Amanda Merrill Pilling, Ryker's mom, and her family. Members of both families sobbed throughout the hearing.
"We love the Merrill family. They've been Christlike to us," Josh Petersen's grandmother, Pam Thompson, said after the sentencing.
"He was a good boy," she said of her grandson.
Prosecutor Craig Johnson spoke with Thompson before she left, apologizing for her loss and assuring her that the life-without-parole sentence was not "vindictive."
He later said the sentence was the best possible decision for the interests of the family and the community and allows them to leave "ghosts" in the past.
A woman who only identified herself as Petersen's aunt said her nephew wore an emotional backpack that was filled with bricks labeled "stupid," "not good enough," and "failure." School was difficult for him, and when he dropped out, more bricks saying "quitter" and "loser" were added.
Ryker's birth marked a change in Petersen, she said after Monday's hearing. Some weight lifted from his shoulders and a light inside him returned.
"In his mind, Josh had finally gotten something right," she said.
Petersen pleaded guilty last month to aggravated murder, a first-degree felony. Both the prosecution and defense agreed to recommend a sentence of life without parole.
During the hearing, Tammy Petersen asked McDade to give her son a less harsh penalty than was recommended. Using her son "to set a precedent" would not stop bad things from happening to others, she said.
"The man he is now is not the man he was on April 5," she said, referring to the day of the shooting. Josh Petersen squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head in emotion as his mother spoke.
She described her son as a "shy, yet friendly young man" whose depression steadily worsened. Family members noticed, but "in no way did we understand the extreme depression he was in."
He stopped eating and began having nightmares that made their way into his daily thoughts, she said. She recalled a commercial for anti-depression medication that said, "Depression hurts."
"All of us can attest to that. Depression is a horrible disorder," Tammy Petersen said.
After Petersen shot his young son in the head at his American Fork home, he then tried to kill himself but family members stopped him. Ryker did not die immediately. After the shooting, Petersen called his grandmother who came to assist, and she called authorities.
Petersen had just broken up with Pilling, according to his family. He told police he had been planning to kill his son for about a month.
"We lost two that day. Our family will never be the same. This tragedy has brought my family a great loss and the pain is horrific," she said.
Petersen apologized for the death of his young son and said if he could, he would change what he did that day.
"I loved that boy," he told the judge.
Family members hugged each other and sobbed after the hearing.
Petersen's aunt said that she believes in her nephew's goodness and kindness, regardless of what others may say.
"I know that he has a Father in heaven who loves him more than (Josh) ever loved his son," she said.
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