In the video played in court yesterday, Yahnajeah Kirkland pulls herself along in a tiny wheelchair, clutching a doll in the rehabilitation center that has been her home since being shot more than two years ago.
Her mouth hangs open and she has difficulty forming words, thanks to the stray bullet that damaged her jaw muscles. A tube can be seen attached to her throat to help her breathe.
Once a spunky 2-year-old, Yahnajeah celebrated her fifth birthday in December. She has endured brain and spinal surgeries, and now suffers from a seizure disorder.
While the 10-minute video played in Superior Court in Camden, the man who fired the bullet that changed Yahnajeah's life watched from a few feet away, clad in a red prison jumpsuit, awaiting his sentencing.
Taleaf Gunther fired from a corner in Camden's Centerville section on Oct. 28, 2004, merely "to impress his friends," said Assistant Camden County Prosecutor Mary Ellen Murphy.
While Yahnajeah's fate remains uncertain, the 20-year-old Camden man now knows his future: He will spend the better part of the next decade in prison.
Gunther pleaded guilty to aggravated assault in November, and Judge Frederick J. Schuck yesterday sentenced him to the 10-year maximum. Gunther will have to serve at least 81/2 years before becoming eligible for parole.
"I'd like to ask Mr. Gunther, 'Do you realize the effect you've had on someone's life?' " said Yahnajeah's great-grandmother, Ernestine Drisdom.
"Yes," Gunther answered from the defense table.
Drisdom wore a T-shirt that had pictures of Yahnajeah before and after the shooting, with the words, "One Bullet Did This."
She urged Gunther to seek forgiveness, advice he seemed to take to heart.
"I'm sorry for what I put the family through. . . . I'll come home a better man this time," Gunther said. "I didn't mean it. I was young. . . . I hope you all forgive me."
Yahnajeah's mother, Nathenia Kirkland, said she came to court prepared to forgive Gunther, until he walked into the courtroom smiling at the sight of his own grandmother, telling her, "I love you."
"You came in here smiling like it's some kind of joke," Kirkland said. "You ruined my life."
Yahnajeah was riding in the back seat of her mother's Ford Escape, on their way to the grocery store, when she was shot. The SUV had just made a turn at Eighth and Ferry Streets when the bullet tore through the rear driver's side door, striking Yahnajeah behind and below the left ear.
Yahnajeah, called "Baby Yaya" by her family, quickly became a symbol of unchecked violence in Camden. That year was the first of two in a row in which the city was named the nation's "most dangerous" by a research firm.
Drisdom said the family hopes Yahnajeah can come home from Weisman Children's Rehabilitation Hospital in Marlton by the end of the year. She still has to have surgery on a foot, Drisdom said.
As for Gunther, "I really do hope he comes out a better person, but it rarely happens," Drisdom said.
"I hope God has mercy on his soul," Kirkland said. "There's nothing left to do but pray and forgive."
Watch the video clip of Yahnajeah Kirkland that was played in court yesterday at http://go.philly.com/yayaEndText