It's what Ryan would have wanted.
Matthew and Janice Mullen stared directly at Danyal Cheema, the Huntington Station man who allowed their 16-year-old son Ryan to "car surf" on the roof of his Uber, ultimately leading to his death, and did the hardest thing they could imagine.
They offered forgiveness and encouraged Cheema to follow Ryan's example by leading a life of happiness, love and compassion for those less fortunate.
"Ryan's life was lost but yours doesn't have to be," Janice Mullen said Thursday as she asked Suffolk County Supreme Court Judge Fernando Camacho for leniency in sentencing Cheema for causing Ryan's death 17 months earlier. "Make a difference. Show compassion to others. Smile at a stranger because it might make a difference in their day. Don't forget to tell others you love them. Be yourself. Laugh out loud. Be the one that helps someone, because no one else might."
The emotional victim's impact statement by the Cold Spring Harbor residents brought members of the Cheema and Mullen families — along with attorneys unaffiliated with the case — to tears.
Cheema, standing in court with his hands cuffed behind his back, collapsed into the arms of two court officers as he took responsibility for Ryan's death and described the "spiritual surgery" he said transformed him into a man worthy of forgiveness.
"I 100 percent accept the challenge of being a better person," Cheema said. "I don't even know what to say. I'm at a loss for words. I know I'm a changed person and it's never going to be behind me completely. It's impossible."
Cheema said he's struggled for years with depression, anxiety and a need to please everybody, even those, like Ryan, who suggested ideas that he knew were dangerous.
"I know I'm at fault," Cheema said. "I know that 100 percent. And this is all very surreal to me. I've stayed up plenty of nights just thinking about this moment; thinking about what I could say to you guys. And there is nothing I can say. I can say I'm sorry, but … the best apology is changed behavior. That's what I've been doing."
Camacho agreed to a plea deal that sentenced Cheema, who pleaded guilty to second-degree manslaughter last April, to 10 months time served and five years probation.
"I can't believe that out of such tragedy can come words that I heard from you two today," Camacho told the Mullens, vowing to rededicate himself, in Ryan's memory, to always protecting young people. "That was some of the most moving, insightful and uplifting words I have ever heard, not only in this courtroom but anywhere."
Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini called the sentence a "just outcome that we hope brings some closure to the victim’s loved ones."
Ryan Mullen and two friends, both 16, spent the evening of Sept. 23, 2018 at several parties in the Cold Spring Harbor area and called an Uber to get home.
The teens paid Cheema $40 to allow Mullen and another boy to ride atop his 2010 Toyota Highlander, while the third boy recorded a video to post on Snapchat, prosecutors said. Mullen fell from the vehicle on Cove Road in Huntington, his head crashing to the pavement, officials said.
The St. Anthony's High School junior suffered a fractured skull and died in his sleep at a friend's house later that morning.
Janice Mullen remembered Ryan as an "old soul" who always showed compassion, whether toward a wounded animal or a friend in need. Ryan's legacy, she said, lives on through the lives he's touched,
"He loved hard and true and he did this quietly, humbly," she said. "He lived the way he wanted to. He wore what he wanted. He laughed out loud, danced and sang whenever he wanted to."
Matthew Mullen said he speaks often to his son and believes that Ryan would want his family, friends — and even the man who took responsibility for his death — to celebrate life and move on.
"We hope that you, too, can get on with your life in a positive way," Matthew Mullen told Cheema. "That the consequences of that night does not cause you further pain. And that you may heal and find happiness. That's what Ryan would want for you and for all of us."