Stephanie Cockrell embraces her grandson, Juwan Johnson Jr. while Johnson Jr.'s mother, Kenika Johnson, holds a photo of her late husband, Sgt. Juwan Johnson.

Stephanie Cockrell embraces her grandson, Juwan Johnson Jr. while Johnson Jr.'s mother, Kenika Johnson, holds a photo of her late husband, Sgt. Juwan Johnson. (Steve Mraz / S&S)

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany – Losing a child is like somebody stabbing you in the heart with an ice pick and leaving it in just so they can apply pressure. The ice pick is never ripped out of your heart, just constantly ripped at.

That’s how Stephanie Cockrell, the mother of a soldier beaten to death by fellow troops during a 2005 gang initiation, described the feeling of life without her only child, Army Sgt. Juwan Johnson.

During a court-martial last week for Airman Nicholas Sims, Cockrell told the court she is not proud her son joined a gang hours before his death on July 4, 2005. She wonders how she’ll tell her grandson about the identity of the father he will never meet.

The 28-year-old Sims — who has been in pretrial confinement for 162 days — was sentenced Friday to eight years’ confinement, dishonorable discharge and reduction to the lowest rank for his role in Johnson’s death. However, Sims will serve no more than six years’ jail time because of a pretrial agreement and credit for time already served. On Wednesday, Sims pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter, disobeying an order by being a gang member and distribution of marijuana and Ecstasy.

On July 3, 2005, Sims was one of at least six Gangster Disciples who beat Johnson for six minutes during a gang initiation near Kaiserslautern, according to testimony. Two soldiers were convicted last year for their part in Johnson’s death. They were sentenced to 12 years’ and six years’ of confinement, respectively. A third soldier tried in 2007 was acquitted.

Sims’ court-martial, which initially was set to begin Monday, started Wednesday afternoon.

During roughly four hours of questioning Wednesday from the military judge, Air Force Col. Gordon Hammock, Sims detailed his participation in Johnson’s initiation.

Hammock repeatedly sought to determine why things got so out of hand on July 3, 2005.

"I have no idea as to why it escalated to the point that it did," Sims told the judge. "It just got out of control."

Sims, who trained as a boxer in his youth in Queens, N.Y., was asked several questions by Hammock about the ferocity of Johnson’s beating.

"You’re a strong guy," Hammock said. "If you were on the receiving end of that (beating), how do you think you would have fared?"

Sims’ reply underscored the severity of what the 5-foot-3 Johnson went through.

"I don’t see how anybody could have made it out of that," Sims said.

On Thursday evening, Cockrell took the stand to deliver testimony that captivated the courtroom and brought Sims to tears.

Cockrell talked of raising Johnson as a single mother in Baltimore. At times, the former drug addict and current counselor had courtroom spectators laughing. At times, Cockrell had the gallery crying. At times, Cockrell broke down.

The gang, in which Sims said he served as the second-highest-ranking member, fashioned itself as a family that would do anything for its members. Cockrell wondered where those family values were when gang members continued to punch and kick her son, even after he fell and could no longer stand during his initiation, she said.

Just like the other convicted gang members, Sims expressed regret for his actions on July 3, 2005, and what happened to Johnson. Cockrell wasn’t buying it Thursday night.

"Isn’t it funny," she said. "None of them showed remorse until you bring them to justice."

Twice Cockrell was asked if she had anything else she would like to say to the judge, Sims or the court.

She turned to Sims and then the judge.

"I say to you (Sims)," Cockrell said, "how could you beat [Johnson] when you didn’t even know him? I would say to the judge: At what point do we do something different to make sure this doesn’t happen in our military?"

In an intensely emotional moment, Cockrell addressed Sims a final time.

"I hope you feel some remorse for killing (Johnson) because at the end of the day that’s what you’ve done," said Cockrell while sobbing. "You robbed me of not only my son but my best friend."

Seated among his three lawyers, Sims uttered a tearful "I’m sorry."

Sims quietly wept in his chair for minutes afterward.

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