Nancy McClellan. Photo: David Gallagher

A young man from Richmond found guilty of fatally stabbing 72-year-old Nancy McClellan in South Berkeley in 2014 was sentenced to 21 years to life in prison Friday morning before Judge Jeffrey Horner in Alameda County Superior Court.

“I am very sorry from the core of my heart. She did not deserve this,” Kamau Berlin, now 21, wrote in an apology letter. “If I could take back time I surely would. I am sorry for taking her life. To all her friends and family I am sorry for taking away a person who is close to you. I think about if I lost my grandmother and how bad that would feel.”

Berlin’s attorney, public defender Kathleen Ryals, read the letter in open court. She said Berlin was not feeling up to doing it himself. He wrote that he plans to use his time in prison to better himself by taking classes, and try to help others avoid bad choices. Berlin’s relatives, who did not address the court and declined to comment to Berkeleyside, cried quietly as Ryals read the letter.

Berlin entered no contest pleas in December to carjacking at knifepoint and second-degree murder. Friday morning, Horner handed down his sentence, which had been determined as part of a negotiated plea: six years for the carjacking conviction, and 15 years to life for murder, to be served consecutively. Berlin is not slated to go before a parole board for 21 years, minus credit for time served, at which point the board would decide whether he should remain incarcerated.

Berlin was 18 years old, and a student at Berkeley Technology Academy, at the time of the fatal stabbing on Russell Street outside the Berkeley Zen Center on Sept. 19, 2014. McClellan, a member of the center as well as its gardener, had been with friends celebrating a wedding that day. Berlin told police he wanted to steal McClellan’s car because he had no ride home to Richmond. He stabbed her in the neck to get her keys. McClellan died nearly three weeks later in the hospital, though she never regained consciousness.

Prosecutor Briggitte Lowe said McClellan’s family, who lives in another part of the state, was not in attendance Friday but had signed off on the plea deal and sentencing agreement. She described the deal as “a well thought-out decision,” and a fair disposition in the case.

Two of McClellan’s friends read brief statements before the court Friday morning.

Diana Copithorne said, in her remarks to the judge, McClellan had come to her home just 45 minutes before she was “viciously murdered.”

“She brought cake to my daughter, and she was kind,” Copithorne said, visibly shaken by emotion. She noted that McClellan’s mother and sister had lived until the ages of 102 and 105, and said the killing was a reminder of “how short life can be.”

She said the “no contest” pleas made her feel there had been no admission of guilt, or any explanation for why the murder happened.

“You’ve denied the world a bit of her light for no reason,” Copithorne said.

Another friend, Dean Bradley, told the judge she had known McClellan since the 80s. She thanked court staff, attorneys and everyone involved in the case “for their effort to help and ease everyone through this heartbreaking process.” She thanked Berlin’s family, as well, especially his mother, Alicia, for being open to conversations along the way, and said that had helped her be more compassionate, let go of anger, and be a better person.

“We’ve all lost,” she said, adding that she hoped everyone would “find some peace out of this.”

A group of Zen Center members has attended every court hearing since 2014 “to bear personal witness to the trial on Nancy’s behalf,” Mark Copithorne told Berkeleyside on Friday. “We would like to dedicate the hundreds of hours of work by the district attorney, the public defender and the court to Nancy’s memory and honor. She was a special friend, artist and spiritual seeker.”

Berkeleyside was the only news outlet in attendance at Friday’s hearing.

Defense attorney Ryals said after the hearing that the compassion and “generosity of spirit” demonstrated by the Buddhist community played a significant role in the plea agreement, and that Berlin’s family was grateful the case reached resolution. Early on, she said, members of the Zen Center wrote to the district attorney’s office to ask for compassion and, eventually, the possibility of parole.

“I think that allowed the district attorney’s office to sit down with me and have a dialogue,” Ryals said.

She noted that Berlin’s age at the time of the crime had been one factor discussed as part of the deal, as well as his mental capacity. Berlin has had learning disabilities his whole life, Ryals said, and has been in special education since kindergarten.

She said efforts remain underway to bring restorative justice into the case, to connect Berlin’s family with members of the Berkeley Zen Center to heal. She said, too, that a “no contest” plea does not mean someone is not sorry for their actions.

“He made admissions of remorse right from the beginning,” she said. “But we understand that doesn’t negate anyone’s grief and anyone’s frustration at losing their loved one.”

Ryals said she also hoped Berlin’s letter of remorse was a comfort to McClellan’s supporters, and a demonstration of how sorry the young man is.

“I hope they take it as sincere because he meant it,” she said. “Those were all his own words. It took some time and some deliberation, and it was sincerely felt.”

Judge Horner also ordered Berlin to pay nearly $9,000 in restitution fines and court fees, along with another $5,000 in restitution should he eventually be paroled, and then violate the terms of that release.

Berlin received credit for the 967 days he has already spent in custody, and will now be transferred to state prison. The prison where he will serve his sentence has not yet been determined, Ryals said Friday.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...