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Families share grief, but differ on the death penalty

Sandra Richardson and Bonnita Spikes have much in common. Both live in Upper Marlboro and are churchgoing Christians who have worked in nursing. Both have dealt with the pain of losing people they loved in murders.

When it comes to the death penalty, however, the two women are on opposite sides of one of the most divisive issues facing the General Assembly this year.

Richardson, 74, hopes to go to Annapolis this week to testify against Gov. Martin O'Malley's effort to end capital punishment in Maryland as she did when the governor made a similar effort four years ago. She'd like to tell lawmakers about her 38-year-old daughter, Lisa Richardson, who was strangled at her Charles County home in 2001 by a man who received a life sentence in a plea bargain.

A dozen years later, her voice chokes and tears fall when she tells the story.

"I don't think there's such a thing as closure," Richardson said. "I think there's such a thing as justice. What I feel is, my daughter didn't get justice."

Spikes, 59, plans to attend Thursday's hearings as a repeal advocate. She says she won't testify only because lawmakers have heard her story in previous years. Her tale is that of a mother of four whose husband stopped at a Manhattan market for a cold juice drink in 1994. Michael Spikes, 42, was shot and killed instantly in a robbery.

The two assailants were never caught. Even if they had been, Spikes wouldn't have wanted to see them executed.

"It wouldn't bring my baby back. It wouldn't bring my honey back. We were such a good pair," she said.

Maryland is not a state that sentences many people to death. Five men are on death row — three for crimes committed in 1983. Since 2006, the state has operated under a de facto moratorium because a court found fault with its rules governing lethal injections. The regulations haven't been replaced, and no executions are expected any time soon.

For opponents of capital punishment, a long-term halt is not enough. They want to repeal the death penalty and replace it with life without parole. They are optimistic they will succeed.

This year, for the first time since 2009, repeal advocates have the full support of the governor, who has made it part of his legislative agenda. They appear to have a slim majority on their side in the state Senate, where their efforts have foundered before. If they prevail in the Senate, they are confident that they have enough votes in the House of Delegates.

Before either chamber votes, however, lawmakers will hear from citizens Thursday in hearings before Senate and House committees.

Lawmakers can expect to hear many voices on each side. Religious leaders — Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims — are expected to testify in favor of repeal. Prosecutors such as Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger, perhaps joined by some public safety employees, are likely to make a case for keeping the death penalty.

Adding their voices will be the families of murder victims, people who — like Richardson and Spikes — have come to profoundly different conclusions about the wisdom and morality of the state's putting killers to death.

Wishing 'a vile creature could die'

Richardson remembers exactly when she spoke with her daughter for the last time: 8:06 a.m. March 1, 2001. They talked about going to Home Depot together, but at 9 a.m. there was no answer at Lisa's home. Richardson figured it was no big deal and went ahead with plans for a weekend trip to Boston.

When she got home and learned that Lisa, a mother of three, was missing, she knew something was terribly wrong.

Two weeks later, Lisa's body was found in a backyard storage locker — a place Charles County sheriff's deputies admitted they had overlooked in searches of her house. Arrested and charged with first-degree murder after a high-speed chase in Lisa's car was Mark Wayne Jennings, 30, described in news reports as her boyfriend, though Richardson insists that the two were not romantically involved.

There was no trial. Jennings entered an Alford plea, conceding that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict but not admitting guilt.

During the sentencing hearing, Richardson asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence.

"If I could have one wish, I would wish that this vile creature could die the way my daughter died, to suffocate, to be thrown in a shed to deteriorate," The Washington Post quoted her as saying.

The judge gave Jennings a life sentence, with the possibility of parole in 15 years. The decision still leaves Richardson feeling raw.

"What does he do? He comes up for parole last July. And that's what? Eleven years?" she said.

Jennings was turned down, but Richardson expects he will come up for parole every four or five years from now on.

"This is hanging over my head for the rest of my life unless something's done about this," she said.

She says there isn't a day that she doesn't think of her slain daughter. There are still times when she's driving down the road and has to pull over to wrestle with grief.

"There's just a hole in your heart that's never filled," she said.

A practicing Roman Catholic, Richardson feels embarrassed sometimes about her church's leading role in seeking repeal of the death penalty. To her, a sentence of life without possibility of parole is not satisfactory. She doesn't trust the state to keep killers in prison until they die.

"They're not going to throw away the key," she said.

Richardson says that even if she never experiences a feeling of closure, she'd be in a better frame of mind had her daughter's killer been executed.

"I wouldn't have this hanging over my head that someday he's going to get out," she said. "Maybe there's something wrong with me."

'I hurt too bad to live'

Bonnita Spikes had a wary feeling when police took her to the hospital after the robbery and led her to the basement. "Why would a hospital have an operating room downstairs?" she wondered.

"They take me by a window and open the curtain and my husband's lying there as pale as a sheet," she said. Had she had any inkling of why she was being taken there, she said, she wouldn't have brought her 15-year-old son.

"When I come to, my son is crying to me, saying, 'Mom, Mom, what are we going to do?'" she said.

Spikes, a registered nurse, had to quickly set aside grieving to attend to a more urgent concern: Her younger son, then 13, tried to kill himself.

"He said, 'Mommy, I hurt too bad to live,' and I really knew what he meant because I felt that way too," she said.

Spikes was 40. She'd been married to Mike, "the love of my life," since she was 19. She wishes the men involved in his killing had been caught.

"I wanted to kill the person who killed my husband," she said. "I was very irate at first. I was an angry black woman."

Eventually, her need to care for her sons, her Baptist faith and the knowledge that her husband had opposed the death penalty trumped her desire to hunt down his killers. She would have had no qualms, though, about their spending their lives in prison.

"Sit there every day and think about that. I'm OK about people stewing in their own misery," she said.

Spikes moved to Maryland in 1996 and eventually became active in the movement to repeal the death penalty. She's now a murder victim family coordinator and a lobbyist for Maryland Citizens Against State Executions.

One of things she likes about this year's repeal legislation is a provision that would divert $500,000 a year that otherwise would be spent on the legal costs of the death penalty. It would be used instead to provide services for murder victims. As expensive as life without parole can be, she said, the death penalty costs more. Legislative analysts put the estimated savings from repeal at $1.3 million a year in the public defender's office alone.

"I'm more proud than I've ever been to stand with this bill this year," she said.

Spikes said the legislation would provide relatives of homicide victims with help she never received after her husband's murder — with funeral expenses, grief counseling and mental health treatment.

Almost two decades after her trip to the morgue, Spikes is a frequent visitor to the men on Maryland's death row. She said she spent time with Wesley Baker, the last man executed in Maryland, on the day of his death in 2005. When he was killed by injection, Spikes said, she was standing outside with his mother.

"I visit the inmates. They all know me, and we fight so we won't have executions anymore," she said.

She is under no illusions about the men she visits. She believes they're still dangerous and should not be free, even though they showed her compassion when they learned about her husband.

Told of Spikes' visits with the inmates on death row, Richardson's reaction was "God bless her."

Spikes said she knows many survivors of murder victims who support the death penalty and understands their position.

"Whatever way you feel, when you've suffered the way you have, you've got a right. Nobody should push you in any direction," she said. "I pray they find peace, and I don't judge."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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