In 2005, three people participated in my sister’s slaying. I have not written about this in possibly ten years, despite it completely changing my life’s trajectory. For five years after her killing, I was highly active in the death penalty abolition movement in Virginia. My voice seemed to carry a lot of weight, despite the words I used being equal to other abolition activists. When I spoke, people stopped arguing and listened. I harbor no delusions that I changed every heart I encountered, but I’m sure I changed one. And that’s what brings me here, ten years later, to speak up once again.
Below, I write about my sister’s murder and how it affected me and my views on capital punishment. I also discuss why I stopped being so vocal in the fight, even though I never abandoned my abolitionist beliefs.
The Phone Call
I was shore-based in the US Navy on October 17, 2005, when my father rang my desk. I was a Cryptologic Technician (Administrative) and worked inside a SCIF on Naval Station Norfolk. I could not bring my flip phone into the building for security reasons. Instead, I left it at home that day (my car was in the shop). Having spent time working in a SCIF back during his Air Force years, my dad knew the drill. He did not even bother to ring my cellphone. He called my desk directly.
My dad calling was not unusual; he called once or twice a month to say hi. What was unusual, however, was the tone of his voice.
He was blubbering like a baby. I could not make out much of what he was trying to say, but I understood three key words he kept repeating: “baby,” “girl,” “dead.” I have two sisters, but I did not have to guess which baby girl he referred.
My older sister was into drugs. I had personally seen her smoke crack when I was a teenager, and she had arrests for heroin and cocaine. She had struggled since high school with addiction. And it was an oft-discussed point that Christy would not make it to her thirtieth birthday if she continued to refuse help. She was twenty-five.
When I finally understood that Christy had passed away in the early hours that morning, like my dad, I chalked it up to an overdose.
But my mother, who was so inconsolable during those first few days after Christy died, refused to trust the generally accepted explanation for why her daughter was gone. She kept saying Christy’s boyfriend was involved. My mom had spun a giant conspiracy theory out of what my younger sister and I believed was whole cloth. Little did we know that mom would be proven correct in the coming months.
The Story according to the Responding Officer
After midnight on October 17, 2005, an officer responded to a report of an unresponsive female on the floor of a Richmond, Virginia boarding house apartment. Obviously, the woman was deceased, and the officer drew up a quick sketch of the room in which she was found. The drawing included the position of the body in the room, furniture, and beer bottles. The policeman also questioned the other tenants who did not really know Christy. One of them stated they saw her ingesting “little white pills,” but they did not know what kind of pills they were.
In the report, the officer unprofessionally referred to Christy as a “vagrant” and noted how frustrating it was that he would have to work overtime due to discovering a dead woman.
The officer finally wrote, “presumed acute intoxication, unknown substance.” The preliminary police cause of death was listed as not suspicious.
The Story according to the Witnesses
When the officer spoke to the witnesses, none of them spoke up. But over the coming months, they came forward with identical tales.
Christy had just moved into that apartment that day. The apartment building was sort of a “halfway house” or rehab residence for recovering addicts. It was not a true halfway house and it was not a sanctioned recovery center. It was a privately-run apartment building catering to the needs of recovering addicts. Christy checked herself in at around 6 or 7 the previous evening and set out to introduce herself to the other residents. Sometime around midnight, the manager checked in on Christy, asked if she needed anything, and then left the building to run errands. He would be back in an hour, he said.
Everyone kept their bedroom doors open (it was the rule–unless you were changing), and the residents of five separate bedrooms watched the following event unfold.
Three individuals (two men and one woman) walked into Christy’s bedroom and shut the door. They were in the room for ten or fifteen minutes, after which they left and closed the door again behind them. Each witness recognized one of the men. He was a well-known drug dealer and member of the MS-13 gang who went by “Ben.” They did not know the identities of the other two.
The witnesses grew worried when Christy did not emerge from her room or open the door. When the manager returned, he got the door open and discovered Christy dead on the floor.
The Full Story
Christy was dating a man named Darren. Darren was “in with” the MS-13 crew, but he was not a member as far as anyone can tell. He was friends with a guy named “Ben,” who was a known violent drug dealer. “Ben” was a street name. An officer once told me Ben chose that name because it is so common. It’s harder to track down a guy named Ben than it is most common gang aliases. And according to a detective I spoke with, the police knew about Ben, but they did not know his identity.
Ben killed a kid. He took a baseball bat to the home of a woman who owed him money and proceeded to beat her son to death.
This killing riled my sister. She confronted Darren, the boyfriend, and demanded he go to the police to help them determine Ben’s real identity. Instead, Darren beat Christy into an inch of her life because she insisted that if he did not turn in Ben, she would. Christy went to the ER that night, heavily bruised.
The next day, Christy broke up with Darren and moved into my dad’s house. She found a lawyer and started working through the lawyer, hoping to get the police the necessary information to capture Ben. But Darren and Ben knew where my dad lived, so Christy decided to move into the residence.
No one has ever explained how Ben and Darren tracked her down, but they did within only a few hours of her moving into the room.
Darren, Ben, and an unidentified woman walked into Christy’s room and closed the door. Darren and the woman held Christy down on the floor while Ben administered either a lethal dose of heroin (a “hot shot”) or an air embolism. The original working theory was the “hot shot,” but subsequent developments make this theory questionable. Once the three were satisfied that Christy was dead, they left the residence.
They killed Christy because she wanted to do the right thing. It is as simple as that.
Discovering the Truth
On Christmas day following Christy’s murder, my dad showed me a letter written on yellow legal paper. It came from an inmate in the Richmond jail. The prisoner knew my dad through Christy and was the father of the daughter she birthed shortly before dying. About three pages long and written with two lines of text squeezed into each line on the paper, the letter detailed every aspect of Christy’s death. The inmate knew names, times, and motives. You see, Darren had told the inmate everything, not knowing of his relationship with Christy. It was in this letter that the “air embolism” method of killing was first mentioned. It is not an incredibly efficient way to kill a person–unless that person is an intravenous drug user.
This was the first time I’d ever suspected that my mom might actually be right. Ever since Christy died, mom had been ranting and raving that Darren did it. Darren beat her up just days before she died, and Christy was trying to put Darren’s friend in prison–that’s what mom was saying, at least. I never believed her until seeing that letter.
There were two problems. This “jailhouse confession” to a “snitch” was insufficient grounds to arrest Darren. And furthermore, a man believed to be Ben died in a house fire after the police surrounded it looking for him (they believe Ben set the fire). There was almost zero evidence other than this letter (the autopsy report hadn’t come out yet).
In any event, after Ben’s supposed death, five eyewitnesses came forward and corroborated every detail of the snitch’s letter. They only came forward after he died because Ben had a history of violence, and they were afraid.
The toxicity report that came out months later showed some drugs in Christy’s system but not the typical amount necessary to cause death. The new air embolism hypothesis led to the medical examiner’s office calling for an exhumation. Unfortunately, Christy was cremated. We will never know that part of the story.
A bleed on the brain was another interesting development in the full medical examiner’s report. The report suggests that Darren’s beating on Christy caused a brain bleed that would ultimately have killed her within a few days without treatment. Darren participated in Christy’s murder twice. He just did not know it.
No arrests were ever made. Darren died two or three years ago while in custody for unrelated crimes. The woman has never been identified.
How this Resulted in My Campaign to End Capital Punishment
I always knew I was against capital punishment from a young age. Coincidentally, fifteen years to the day before my sister’s murder, Wilbert Lee Evans was put to death in Virginia’s electric chair. The electrocution was brutal and bloody and is generally regarded as “botched.” The condemned required a second jolt of electricity after the first failed to kill him. Blood poured from his nose while Evans moaned in pain between the jolts. I was a small child when this happened, but the story I read in the paper the next morning traumatized me. I thought, how could we do this to a helpless person? This was not killing in self-defense; it was cold and calculated. Evan’s execution had an enormous impact on my childhood development.
But I never really expressed my views on capital punishment in public. My friends knew. Some agreed with my position; others did not. But I never really thought about joining a cause. That is–until my sister’s death.
I came out against the death penalty publicly after people really started paying attention to my story. I published op-eds and blog posts, which caused churches and non-profit abolition groups to send me emails and leave me voicemails. I gave subsequent lectures at documentary screenings, churches, and other venues frequented by activists. I even testified before the Virginia House of Delegates in 2009 about my views and experiences. Republican abolitionist Del. Frank Hargrove was retiring, and Virginians for Alternatives to the Death Penalty asked me to work with his team on his last-ditched effort to repeal capital punishment in Virginia. His bill made it out of the subcommittee on the same day I spoke about my experiences, but it failed on the full floor. (More than ten years later, capital punishment is still on the books in Virginia, but VADP and abolitionist lawmakers have a real fighting chance at ending it soon).
In other words, my sister’s slaying and the dramatic responses people had when I said I’m against what some people call “state-sanctioned murder” transformed me into a “bleeding heart liberal” (my ultra-conservative dad’s words) and an activist for compassion. Eventually, I even went vegan because I couldn’t get over the following contradiction I had in my head: I ate and caused the deaths of innocent animals while fighting to protect the lives of guilty* killers. Meat had to go.
*At least, guilty as far as the courts are concerned.
But there is one more element to this story that sparked my transformation more than any other thing. It was my sister’s viewing.
Bodies from suspicious or unknown deaths tend to spend more time with the medical examiner than others. During the week they had her body, inevitable changes occur due to decay (I’ll save the reader from most of the details and hope you never have to see for yourself). Although the funeral director and his team did the best they could, specific changes were evident. When my mom saw Christy’s shriveled and black fingertips, for example, she broke down. She started examining other parts of Christy’s body, pulling her collar down to expose the Y-incision stitches. It was as if the sight of bodily corruption made the finality of Christy’s death real for the first time. I do not believe my mom has ever gotten those images out of her head. I mean, I have not, so why would she?
And if that was not horrible enough, at the end of the night, after all of Christy’s friends and family members had paid their respects and left, my mom could not let go. She attempted to throw herself into Christy’s casket, screaming to not let them take Christy from her. I do not think I have to thoroughly explain the trauma Christy’s death and subsequent viewing had on my mom. I think it is obvious. Losing a loved one to murder is inescapably painful, traumatic, and crushing.
Watching my mom go through that made me realize one significant thing. While my sister’s murder is final, and my mom’s torment is lifelong, we can save other moms, sisters, brothers, and love ones from experiencing what my mom went through. I realized I could use my voice to stop my mom’s pain from being inflicted on the loved ones of condemned death row inmates. Why should the prisoners’ families pay for the prisoners’ crimes? Why should a mom have to lose her son? How many mothers of death row victims have thrown themselves into their executed sons’ caskets? Oh, it does not make any sense to subject innocent people to unnecessary pain.
And so I spoke up.
Unfortunately, life got in the way of my activism. I graduated from college and went to graduate school. Eventually, I started a Ph.D. program and finished that recently. Meanwhile, I traveled around the globe and did a lot of really cool stuff. I never gave up this passion for abolition, but I indeed paused the enthusiasm with which I pursued it. The funny thing is that I slowed my activism to dedicate my life to schooling to become the most impactful advocate as possible.
Despite this hiatus, while I was away researching, teaching, and building computational models, I was patiently waiting for the day that I could graduate and get back to what I love most–being an advocate. And through all the experiences after Christy’s murder, I have a much broader list of passions. It is no longer just capital punishment. I seek equity and justice wherever it is needed.
Still, the fight against the avoidable trauma inherent in taking human life is my first passion.