The Pursuit of Justice for Homicide Victims

05/05/2014 03:21 pm ET Updated Jul 05, 2014

Something happened last week at a graveyard in Whittier, California that you might never hear about unless I tell you.

Jack Reilley, whose daughter Robbin was murdered in 1986, was speaking to families on the 30th anniversary of Justice for Homicide Victims, an organization founded by Marcella Leach and my mother Ellen Griffin Dunne. Jack was addressing a membership that no one would ever want to join. It was only inexplicable loss that had brought them together, the kind of loss my mother was all too aware.

On October 30th, 1982, her daughter and my sister Dominique was strangled by an ex-boyfriend she had broken up with because he had become physically abusive. She lay in a coma until November 4th when she was pronounced dead. The murderer served a mere three years in a minimum security prison with tennis courts and cable TV. Marcella Leach's daughter, Marsy, was shot to death by a rejected suitor. Though her killer was arrested, Marcella was horrified to learn he'd been released on bail not from the district attorney's office, but from the killer himself when he taunted her at their local grocery.

Hearing of this travesty, my mother cold-called Marcella and opened with a haunting line my mother would later repeat to countless other parents in agony: "You don't know me but we have something terrible in common." My mother told Marcella she could either continue crying for Marsy in support groups or help create laws that would force the judicial system to treat them with respect. Today Marsy's Law, with mandatory bail and parole notification among it's statutes, is one of the strongest and most comprehensive constitutional victims' rights laws in the U.S.

The 30th anniversary of Justice For Homicide Victims was held at Rose Hills Cemetery where JVH had built a beautiful memorial honoring their sons, daughters and parents whose lives had been violently cut short.

On either side of the memorial that day were rows of easels propping up pictures of the murdered, most of them children, some who'd been killed as long ago as the late 1970s. I was also a speaker and seated in the front row, which happened to be directly in front of Dominique's smiling face, which I took as a sign to do Mom proud and not screw up my speech. One of the themes in my remarks was how the violent end of a family member can shorten the life span of their survivors. How grief can be something tangible that enters the bloodstream and even affect one's vitals and immunities. My mother had multiple sclerosis and there was no doubt that the trauma of Dominique's murder and the humiliation of the trial that followed accelerated this disease and took her life at least decade prematurely.

As Jack Reilley spoke, I realized he was also addressing the mortality rate of parents who outlive their children. His daughter Robbin, had been stabbed to death by a serial killer on the campus of Saddleback College in 1986. Though the killer confessed to the crime 17 years ago, he is still awaiting trial in Orange County.

Jack told us about his wife, who had died last year, and how Robbin's murder and the torment of waiting for justice had affected not only his wife's health, but her very being. Rage had altered her character from the loving woman she had once been into an angry and bitter person her friends and family found difficult to recognize. People grew frustrated that she had yet to find "closure," that most dreaded of words naively uttered by those who don't understand that grief has no final chapter. It was the waiting for justice, Jack explained, that took years off her life. And then he said these words: "Justice delayed is justice denied. I hope you understand why my anger has turned to cynicism. Justice for Robbin has turned into some macabre Charles Dickens Bleak House plot line-"

The sentence was cut short when Jack's heart suddenly seized and, as if in slow motion, he fell to the ground. Pandemonium ensued. People gathered around him crying out for anyone who knew how to perform CPR. Toni Fell, a nurse at the Newport Medical Center took control and was aided by an L.A. Sheriff Deputy whose presence was a godsend. People grabbed blow up pictures from the easels to shield Jack from the sun. Someone held Dominique over his eyes and I saw Marsy's picture fanning the sweat off his brow.

LaWanda Hawkins, whose son Reggie was killed in an unsolved shooting in 1995, stroked Jack's face and cried to the heavens, "Please God, don't take Jack. He's a good man. Don't do this to him." If I were asked to plead for his life my wording would have been different: "Really God? Is this your idea of irony, killing a man in a graveyard while he's talking about his dead wife and child? How cruel of you to fell this man in front of these people." Shaking off my own cynicism, I joined in the growing chorus of others yelling "Come back Jack! You can do it! Don't leave us now!"

After an interminable period that might have been 15 minutes but seemed a lifetime, an ambulance arrived to take him to the hospital with LaWanda by his side. A little girl who had earlier read a poem honoring her murdered big sister was still crying. The pictures of the dead were scattered across the lawn, some face up, some face down. Presuming the ceremony over, I looked for my wife and brother to head back to the car. Incredibly, Jane Bouffard, JVH's president, took to the microphone to say that Jack, one of their earliest members, would have wanted everyone to carry on with the event.

Without hesitation, people picked up the chairs that had been knocked over in the chaos and arranged them back in their rows. The tent that had been carried away to make room for the ambulance went back to its place. The pictures of our loved ones were returned to their easels. As I watched the crowd restore order from mayhem, I realized that though they shared something terrible in common, no one that day was a "victim" in the helpless sense of the word, but "survivors" who would not let Robbin's killer ruin their day of celebration.

Jane then introduced the invincible LaBertha Pickett-Allen, whose son Ernie was shot at school in front of 300 witnesses who all refused to testify. "Well I can't believe I have to follow that!" she said because how could she not and we laughed because that is what survivors do.

"If that doesn't show how anger and grief will cut your life expectancy, then I don't know what would," In a matter-of-fact manner she then estimated that Ernie's killer will probably take ten years off her own life as well.

Jane returned with news from the hospital; Jack was alive and awaiting immediate surgery. The problem was that they couldn't perform on his heart without notifying a next of kin. He had a son living out of state who would take time to track down -- time that Jack didn't have. So there he was, waiting to have his life saved while they looked for his son because a serial killer took not only his daughter's life but later his wife's.

I went on and delivered my speech which after all that had transpired now seemed redundant. The blame I placed on Dominique's killer for advancing my mother's MS was now indisputable. I described my mother's private and shy character and the extraordinary courage it took, as JVH's spokesperson, to relive the tragedy of losing her daughter in the public eye so that others would not have to experience the gross indifference and disrespect she had in the courtroom. I looked at my audience and thought they too had just as much courage as she because, like my mother, they had turned their loss into the power to heal others. I told them how proud I was of Mom for starting JVH with Marcella Leach, but really I was just as proud of every one of its members, and going off script, told them so from the bottom of my heart.

As Jack fights for life, it is important to remember that what happened to Robbin, Dominique, Marsy, Reggie and Ernie is not something that only happens to other people. Murder doesn't care about class or race or religion, it is brutal and arbitrary, and if, God forbid, if it touches your life, don't expect the judicial system to feel your pain. JVH was started to raise awareness of the forgotten victims and fight the injustice families face every day in court. I'm grateful to them for all they've done these past thirty years and for their long struggle ahead.