Aja Makalo pleaded guilty Oct. 2 in a Jackson County courtroom to the murder two years ago of Jacob Ray, her fellow student at Western Carolina University.

She abandoned plans of claiming self defense under the state’s so-called “stand your ground” law. Superior Court Judge Brad Letts had set aside time last week to hear arguments for and against immunity from prosecution.

Citizens in this state have the right to defend themselves from imminent threats of death or great bodily harm in their homes, vehicles or at workplaces. There is no duty to retreat.

District Attorney Ashley Welch’s office, with the family’s OK, in court announced a plea agreement had been reached.

The judge then sentenced Makalo, who is from Charlotte, on charges of second-degree murder, kidnapping and robbery. Letts said the 21 year old would serve a minimum of 20 years to a maximum of 25 years in prison. If convicted of first-degree murder, Makalo risked spending the rest of her life in prison without the possibility of parole.

“There is a God, and you will stand in front of him,” said Beth Ray of Hendersonville, the victim’s mother. 

Makalo cried quietly and dabbed at her eyes with a tissue. 

“I hope one day, you will receive his grace and forgiveness,” Ray told her.

Ray’s husband, Victor Ray, stood behind his wife as she spoke. He, too, dabbed at his eyes with tissue, crying as she talked about their son, a junior computer information systems major and club-level soccer player at WCU.

Makalo and co-defendant Zavion Southerland, 19, also from Charlotte, are accused of shooting and killing the 21-year-old Ray after arranging to buy two pounds of marijuana from him.

Prosecutors say Southerland was the triggerman. In new information, Assistant District Attorney Chris Matheson told the judge Southerland had used his own gun, not Ray’s, as prosecutors earlier believed.

Ray was carrying a 9mm handgun. He was shot in the back of the head with a bullet from a .380 caliber pistol, according to Matheson.

Beth Ray described her son as a kind, courteous and loving person. She talked about the family’s efforts to set aside bitterness and anger, felt so deeply, she said, their sorrow and hurt threatened to rip apart the marriage.

“I don’t want to be a statistic and be divorced,” Ray said. “I want our family to help other families who have lost children.”

Earlier, Makalo claimed Ray pulled a pistol and tried to rob her and Southerland. Her co-defendant shot Ray accidentally in the back of the head, according to Makalo.

Matheson described a different version of events. The assistant district attorney said Makalo and Southerland locked Ray inside the back of Makalo’s car.

She said investigators found Ray’s shoe print on one of the car’s glass windows. He’d tried to kick his way out, Matheson said, with such force he warped the back passenger door and broke plastic.

Witnesses heard yells, according to Matheson: “Get off me,” followed by, “Dude, this isn’t a joke.”

Southerland told a jailhouse informant he grew “upset and frustrated,” because Ray wouldn’t give up the fight, according to prosecutors. 

They say Southerland hit Ray five times in the head with the gun before shooting him.

Ray was found at the back entrance to WCU near a university welcome sign along Old Cullowhee Road.

Ray’s mother told Makalo she had choices.

“You could have unlocked the car,” she said. “You could have let him go. You chose to sit there and watch him be murdered.”

No date has been set for Southerland’s trial.