Part 5: The quest for closure for the victims' families

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It took almost 30 years from when her sister’s murderer was convicted for Deborah Knights to find herself in the execution chamber watching him slowly die.

Deborah Knights waited 26 years to see her sister's killer executed.

She sat in the front row with her brother, Sal Cox, who cried throughout the 11 minutes it took to declare Robert Henry dead.

I was in the back row, but I could still see him constantly wiping his eyes. His sister Deborah rubbed his back.

Afterwards, across the street from the prison, she read a statement.

“We the family of Janet Cox Thermidor will always cherish the memory of her life. Janet was a devoted daughter, sister, aunt, niece, cousin and a friend to many. We will always cherish the memory of her life that was taken so soon by a demon from hell. Today should be closure, but how can you forget the brutal way in which two lives were taken without remorse?… Our family will never be able to experience what life would have or could have been like if Janet had been here. It’s our prayer as a family that one day we’ll be able to forgive, but we will never be able to forget.”

One of the few things people on both sides of the death penalty argument can agree on is that in its current state, the death penalty is not working.

Almost no one thinks the system in place now is the way it should work.

A big part of that is just how long everything takes, whether that's to get off Death Row or to have a death sentence carried out. The longest living resident of death row in Florida has been there 42 years. Robert Henry was there for more than 26 years.

Janet Cox Thermidor in a family portrait.

In 1987, Robert Henry hit Janet and another employee of a fabric store over the head with a hammer and lit them on fire in the bathroom of the store. He stole $1,269.

Knights, her mom, her sister and her brother all went up and stayed the night not far from the prison. Only Deborah and her brother actually went to the execution, though.

“I want him to get the electric chair; that’s what I wanted to see,” said Knights. “I wanted him to suffer. He didn't suffer. I mean, you know, they stuck a needle in there and he went to sleep, basically.”

Deborah was the one who had to go to the coroner’s office and identify her sister, Janet, who had been burned so badly she was almost unrecognizable. That image and the thoughts of Janet’s last moments are part of Deborah now.

Deborah says if there wasn’t a recording of Janet saying Henry’s name before she died maybe she would have had reservations about the death penalty. But hearing that voice played in the trial, that was the confirmation she needed that this was the man who murdered Janet.

“When you take somebody's life, I mean why should you have your life? You've taken something that you can't give back. Just to take somebody's life just to do it because you can do it, yeah, your life should be taken. I always believed that and still do,” said Knights.

But what did not feel like justice to her and her family was how long it took for the sentence to be carried out, 26 years in which Henry’s family had the opportunity to visit, talk and hug him.

“He was still breathing. We would have to go to a graveyard and look at a tombstone to visit my sister,” said Knights.

During those two and a half decades, someone in her family went to all the appeals, hearings and trials that came after Robert Henry’s initial sentence.

“Everybody that kills somebody intentionally should get the death penalty,” said Sal Cox, Janet’s brother. “I don't think they should have all these appeals. [If] they get sentenced and found guilty, I feel they should be dead within the next month.”

Former Florida Supreme Court Justice Charley Wells believed these kinds of cases just took too long and he tried to do something about that while on the bench.

“I would remark on several occasions that one of the things that I found [was] the case would be going on so long that the only person that was still alive was the person on Death Row,” said Wells. “Every case went through the system at least twice and usually three or four or five times”

He said during that time lawyers for the state, defense lawyers and judges would change, which would leave cases sitting “for six seven eight years with no attention at all.”

Wells tried a lot of different things to unstick cases: He started a class that judges who tried capital cases were required to take and he streamlined the process for the paperwork going through the Florida Supreme Court. But these cases still don’t move much faster than they did back then.

Despite the 26 years it took, Deborah Knights said she would still rather have this flawed system than nothing at all. The execution means that Knights can look at the picture of her sister that hangs by the front door and not get upset. The execution gave her that freedom.

“You know, it’s finished, it’s done. I don’t have to worry about him coming back for appeals, I don’t want to have to hear about them, you know, in articles about him, and what not; it’s over. I've had the closure that I needed. And now, you get little memories but then you can laugh, you can smile about it.”

But that’s not true for everyone.

Darlene Farah with a photo of her daughter Shelby

“Name one good thing that comes out of somebody getting executed,” said Darlene Farah. “To me, it just it makes more victims.”

Farah is at the very start of the process Deborah Knights and her family are beginning to put behind them.

Darlene’s 20-year-old daughter Shelby was killed while working at a Jacksonville MetroPCS store in July 2013. Shelby’s killer was caught and has confessed to the killing. But, almost from the start, Darlene has been fighting against the death penalty for her daughter’s killer.

“I'll always tell my kids., 'Two wrongs don't make a right.' And Shelby and I have had many discussions about it,” said Farah.

She rejects the notion that victims’ families should be a reason to continue to use the death penalty, that executions give families closure, like it did for Deborah Knights.

“They don't know what the victim's family goes through,” responded Farah.

She says other families who’ve had relatives murdered have gotten in touch, saying they support her push to prevent the death penalty in her daughter’s case.

She’s heard from people who didn’t realize that death penalty trials are often longer than non-death penalty trials, there are more appeals and it takes years or decades for it all to be over, like in Deborah Knights’ case.

Darlene just wants to be done with it. In Jacksonville, the case has been in the press regularly, which has been hard on her and her family. And each time she goes to court means facing this man who killed her daughter.

“I know I don't want him to get the death penalty, but it takes everything out of me when I look at him,” said Farah. “I don't feel sorry for him because he was 21 when he did it. It was premeditated. He knew what he was doing.”

She wants the prosecution to take a plea deal she says the defense has offered: two life sentences plus 20 years, no parole, and no appeals.

But over the past year, Shelby’s case has gone pretty much nowhere.

If you remember (LINK TO PART 2), there were two outcomes of the various legal challenges that threw Florida’s death penalty into limbo.

One was the question about already sentenced inmates - like Mike Lambrix.

The second is that, until the Legislature returns to Tallahassee in March, there are no rules governing how to sentence someone to death in Florida.

Because of that, two and half months ago Darlene’s daughter’s case got pushed back, again, to Jan. 24. But because there won’t be new rules on how to sentence someone to death yet, that will mean more court dates.

Despite all of this, Darlene Farah is glad it’s getting harder for people to be sentenced to death in Florida.

She’s become a kind of activist against the death penalty. She has spoken to legislators and non-profit groups about reforming and says she’ll keep doing that even after her daughter’s case is resolved.

"My job will not be done till the changes are made,” said Farah.

For Darlene, closure isn’t going to be exacted by the courts. Closure will come between her and her daughter’s killer.

“He wants to talk to me and I wanted to talk to him, which that right there alone will bring me a little bit of closure,” said Farah. “I want him to know about the person's life he took away. I want him to know that if we knew him before this happened, what Shelby would have been wanting to do.”

The lawyers don’t think it’s a good idea before the trial. Both sides still have a case to mount and death is still on the table.