Catherine Durkin Robinson: Waiting for a murderer to die

On a cold and bitter night, we stood across the street from Florida State Prison.

Waiting.

When Julie Solomon Bame suggested months earlier that we drive to Starke for the execution of the man who murdered our friend and high school classmate, Stephanie Anne Collins in 1986, a few of us agreed to go to support the family.

The morning of Jan. 7, 2016, Julie, Sonja Brown Hudson, Chris Foster, Joey Larson, Elizabeth Ryan and I left Tampa and drove north to Gainesville, where we checked into our hotel.

It was a warm day. The sun occasionally peeked from behind clouds, our mood light-hearted and peaceful.

When we arrived in Starke, everything felt different. The weather quickly turned cold, bleak and grey. Heavy. Our moods somber.

Police officers and state troopers greeted us outside the prison.

“Are you here because you’re for or against the death penalty?” one asked, with a thick southern accent.

Joey and I looked at each other.

“Neither,” Joey said. “We’re here for the family.”

They ushered us toward a roped-off area near a few trees with a sign that said SUPPORTERS. There stood two more high school classmates, two childhood friends of Stephanie’s from Kansas City, two strangers, and one man who was there for a different reason.

Roy Brown started coming to Starke in 1998, when his 7- year-old daughter Amanda was murdered in Tampa. Her killer was sentenced to death. Roy believed in supporting families who had gone through a similar nightmare. He wanted all such families to find peace.

Peace that eluded him.

We waited for the end to come – together.

Some told stories, got reacquainted and laughed. A few huddled in the cold, finding solace in shared blankets and coats. For a time, I stood by myself. I wanted to give this occasion the solemn respect it deserved, and navigating through murky emotions and dark memories is best done alone.

I couldn’t cry. I just stared ahead at the building across the street where they said it was happening.

The air barely moved around us.

The night before, friends and family met at a Tampa bar for Stephanie’s memorial gathering. Amid an outpouring of warmth and love, Stephanie’s childhood and high school pictures flashed on screens that normally showed football and basketball games.

Now we stood in the cold and foggy evening, waiting for 6 p.m. That was the moment her murderer was scheduled to die.

A few feet away, death penalty opponents rang bells and gongs and we believed it was done.

Nothing happened. The sky grew darker as the distant sun fell below the horizon.

I continued to stare at that building.

All the events that we were told would happen, didn’t. The lights in the windows of the Death House weren’t turned off. The hearse didn’t leave. The vans with the family didn’t drive by. Press releases didn’t appear in news feeds, announcing the time of death.

We waited, growing colder, impatient and hungry. The minutes stretched to hours.

No one said a word because Stephanie’s parents, Donna and John Witmer, so dignified and strong, were inside waiting. Mike, Stephanie’s older brother, who perfectly articulated our anger, waited. Sean, Stephanie’s younger brother, whose sad eyes held everyone’s sorrow, waited.

We waited, too. We were all in this together.

No complaining.

We hoped that the family inside received more information than we were getting outside.

Finally, news media reported the case was being reviewed by the United States Supreme Court. This surprised us. Reporters said all appeals had been denied. Apparently, his defense attorney had one last trick up his sleeve.

Lawyers and clerks and justices, hundreds of miles away in warm offices, reviewed legal documents and no one knew when they’d finish.

And so the family was made to wait.

After a few hours, we left to get something to eat. As the waitress showed us to our table, phones beeped. News stations reported the execution would happen in the next half hour. We drove back before ordering anything.

News stations were wrong. The temperature continued to drop. We stared at that building but the fog prevented us from seeing if the lights were off or on.

Death penalty opponents went home.

When a few networks reported it might not happen that night, we felt a quiet devastation and our hearts broke for the family. I looked over at the prison through thick blankets of fog and fatigue. Nothing stirred there.

A few of us left again to get some food.

Everyone wondered if Stephanie’s family had been allowed to eat dinner. We hoped they were comforted. We hoped this waiting game wasn’t causing them to suffer even more than they already had.

This time we ate and paid our bill. News came that the Supreme Court denied the final appeal. His execution was imminent.

Julie purchased coffee and fries for those who’d stayed behind. We drove back to Starke, handed out the drinks and food and stood together, facing the prison and watching.

Waiting.

Around 10:30 p.m. we got word that it was done. We watched the hearse drive away and a few of us turned our backs.

Dead or alive, he didn’t deserve our respect.

After a few minutes, the van of family members drove by. Sonja and I put our arms around each other. I could see my breath in the air and shivered. We held out our hands and waved. Someone in the van waved back.

That’s when the tears came. Uncontrollable, undignified, unstoppable.

I cried for Donna, Mike and Sean. Stephanie’s stepfather. Her sisters-in-law.

I cried for a girl who never walked down an aisle or held a newborn baby in her arms.

For Cathy, Stephanie’s best friend, because that horrible man killed a part of her, too.

For Sonja and Julie and Belinda and anyone who spent years afraid of going anywhere alone.

For Amanda Brown and her father, who stands outside death row, year after year, waiting for justice that never comes.

For the families, hoping they find lasting comfort and peace.

For my twin sons, who turned 16 that day, and Joey’s little boys because this was the world they were inheriting. I hoped my children would understand and ultimately forgive their frightened mother, who insisted they check in so often and stick together when out by themselves.

For all victims, families and loved ones.

I cried because the suffering that some are made to endure is beyond comprehension.

We walked to the media tent and waited for the family to make their statement. Donna and her sons hugged me and my friends, thanking us for being there. It was the least we could do.

Officials reported all relevant details. They said the murderer was offered a sedative and took it.

“Was the family offered a sedative?” Sonja mumbled. “Comfort of any kind?”

An official reported on the fine meal the murderer had eaten that day.

Stephanie’s family hadn’t had any real food to eat since 3 p.m. They waited in a cold room, by themselves, sitting on pew seats without cushions.

They were made to relinquish cell phones and then sat isolated for over five hours. They had no real knowledge about what was happening, no real nourishment, no contact with the outside world.

Punished once again.

I asked Sean if they had at least a bathroom to use.

“One bathroom,” he said. “Someone had to stand guard outside because the door wouldn’t lock.”

Dignity and respect afforded the man who’d shattered their lives, while victims’ families once more had to suffer and endure.

And wait.

Mark Douglas, from WFLA News in Tampa, and two female reporters spoke into microphones while a mother waited for them to finish. They finally stopped and she was allowed to talk.

Later, while reporting about the event with Jennifer Leigh back in the studio, Douglas never mentioned Stephanie’s family. Instead, he and Leigh talked about how hard it was for journalists to sit in a room for so long and witness a state-sanctioned “homicide.”

He focused on how haunting it was for him. For journalists.

Joey and I cried silently when Donna spoke of the daughter she thinks about every day. We are parents and understand: there is no closure when something like this happens. How can there be?

Stephanie is still gone.

The murderer never asked for forgiveness. He never expressed remorse for the pain he’d caused. No redemption. No hope. He just shut his eyes, turned blue and died.

“It was too humane,” Mike Collins told us.

No one said a word on the ride back to Gainesville.

***

Catherine Durkin Robinson is a syndicated writer and friend, living in Tampa. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Guest Author


One comment

  • Rufus Hambone

    January 12, 2016 at 9:23 pm

    Well said my friend. You should have brought a jacket.

Comments are closed.


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