Standing in the hallway of the high school that her daughter attended, Crystal Mason Will described how Ashley Nicole Mason was murdered 17 years ago.
The 14-year-old's body was left in the woods behind a Pizza Hut, placed there by her daughter's two killers.
And now, Will says, every time the men have an appeal hearing, she makes sure she's there, in the courtroom, the first person they see when they're escorted in. She's relived the horrible details of Ashley's death over and over again, sat through a five-day hearing to determine whether the girl was still alive when she was in the woods after she'd been stabbed 34 times, nearly decapitated.
There have been times when she's wanted to reach across and throttle them. To scream "Murderer!" Instead, she reads an impact statement, relaying how Ashley's death affected her, in hopes that the men never, ever walk free.
She says she loves murder mysteries and whodunits — but those shows never convey what happens afterward. "What happens after that person is found guilty? How many appeals do they get?" she said.
The question of "what happens next" was front and center on the minds of the estimated 200 attendees at the 29th annual Maryland Statewide Memorial Services for crime victims and their families at Long Reach High School in Columbia on Sunday. The event is part of National Crime Victims' Rights Week, which began Sunday.
The service brings together those who have been affected by crime and those who prosecute the criminals, said Kim Oldham, deputy state's attorney for Howard County.
"These are more than just cases to us," she said in her remarks opening the ceremony. Oldham was a prosecutor on the case against Ashley's killers. Because many murder cases — like Ashley's — take several years to prosecute, lawyers get to know victims' families at a personal level.
"We're human," Oldham said. "It's hard not to feel that emotion towards them."
Some, like Will, were there remembering loved ones who died long ago. David Mueller Jr. came to honor his aunt, Christine Ann Jarrett, who was killed in 1991. The family all suspected her husband had done it, but he wasn't convicted until her body was found, more than 20 years later, buried under concrete.
"She's not forgotten," said Mueller. He hopes that her story can serve as an example for others in abusive relationships.
For others, the grief was still raw. Irisha Avery's son was killed on Christmas Day last year. She and several family members came to the event, bearing framed photos of James Fallin Jr. Some wrote a note to him. Others painted rocks with angels. The event was a comfort, said Avery; it reminded her she wasn't alone. "I think I'm gonna come every year," she said.
Like Will, Avery plans to attend every hearing and court case for her son's suspected killer.
Though that process can be absolutely brutal, says Will, there's help available through the Victims Unit, whose employees will sit with victims' families during trials and provide other forms of support. Will said Oldham was there when she unexpectedly received a letter in the mail from one of the killers. And Oldham made sure it never happened again.
For Alice Oaks of Baltimore County, it was an opportunity to remember not one but two sons murdered: Larry Henderson Jr., who was killed in May 2014, and Irvin Lawson Jr., killed in January of this year. She learned about the death of her second son over the phone — while she was driving home from eating crabs. She parked the car in the middle of the road. "Not my only child," she screamed.
There were times when she contemplated suicide. When she questioned God. She had prayed for her sons every day — that God would keep them safe. How could this happen?
After a while, she got an answer. She said God told her he would keep her boys safe. So he brought them to heaven, to keep them there.