Saturday, April 30, 2016

Sentencing Hearing

Just 4 days after the 5th anniversary of  Mom & Dad's deaths we finally have come to the end of the road. At least for now. As we saw today, the possibility of new trials will most likely continue to loom over us. And then there's the thought that someone else was involved with Jose. If detectives are able to charge this other person, that would mean a whole other trial.

Right now, I choose not to dwell on those possibilities.

When we arrived at the courthouse today, prosecutors told us that the defense would be introducing 2 motions. One for an acquittal and one for a new trial. They said there had been a ruling in another case before the Missouri Supreme Court that occurred after this trial and the defense felt it would support their case for either an acquittal or new trial. This made me very nervous. I was not expecting that to happen!

We had to listen to arguments we had heard twice before in different hearings. Then the defense brought up the Missouri Supreme Court ruling that he said supported their position. Of course, the prosecutor brought out facts of that case the defense had omitted. In the end, the judge ruled against them. Big relief!

Then came time for considering the sentencing. My Uncle Jay Willingham, Dad's younger brother, spoke first. He talked about the impact Mom and Dad had on the lives of all their siblings and also on every community they ever lived in. Everywhere they went, they allowed the light of the Lord to shine through. Uncle Jay was visibility shaken. I know how much he looked up to both Mom and Dad. Then my cousin Cindy talked about the day they died and how it had impacted her life. Then it was my turn.

My brothers had decided I should speak on their behalf as well as our children and my grandchildren (yes, I'm the youngest but the only one with grandchildren yet). I talked about the impact that Mom and Dad had on all of us. My brother ,Stephen, had lost his best friend, our Dad. They would talk for hours nearly every single week. The long conversations we all had with Mom and Dad. Many deep spiritual conversation. We could always go to them for advice. And not just us but our children, too.

Even though most of their grandchildren were in their 20's at the time of their deaths, they were very close to them. I know my kids had many long conversations with them regarding Scripture, and other spiritual matters. They had deep relationships with their grandchildren!

Only one of their great-grandchildren had been born before their deaths. Three more have come along since then. They will never have the benefit of having those talks with Mom and Dad. They will have to rely on our telling of memories in order to know them.

After talking about all this I said that even though this was supposed to be a victim impact statement, I needed to stress to the court that our parents were not victims. Just as Jesus lived in victory even when He was nailed to the cross, Mom and Dad lived in victory because they served Jesus. God was in complete control of their lives. Jose would not have been able to touch either of them if God had not allowed it. His angels were itching to get into the fight but God held them back that morning. We do not know why God allowed it but we do know that He has a plan and we trust that plan. He will use this horrific evil act for good.

I also stated that God has a plan for Jose's life, too. It is our hope and prayer that Jose will respond to God's call and follow Him no matter what happens to him or where he ends up. I told the judge that we know he will be fair and just in giving his sentence and we will respect whatever that sentence is. No amount of time served will bring Mom and Dad back.

At this point, both sides stated their thoughts about what the sentence should be. After just a few minutes the judge gave his decision: 1st degree felony murder, count 1 - Life; 1st degree felony murder, count 2 - Life to be run consecutively to the first sentence. Felony burglary - 15 years to be run congruently with the first Life sentence. Then the judge added that the 1st Life sentence would run consecutively to the burglary sentence he is currently serving. I forgot to ask the prosecutor how much longer he has to serve on that sentence but it does mean that the time he has been serving while awaiting trial will not count toward this sentence.

I felt so many emotions at that point! Relief was the biggest. When I heard the word, "consecutive" on the second Life sentence, I was elated. We really didn't expect that. If the courts continue to treat the parole possibilities the same as they do today, it will be 51 years before Jose will be eligible for parole.

I do pray that Jose will choose to turn his life over to the Lord. I hope he has an awesome prison ministry! I sincerely meant it when I said that God has a plan and a call on his life. He has a plan for each one of us if we will just choose to answer His call.

Ephesians 2:10 (Good News Translation)

God has made us what we are, and in our union with Christ Jesus He has created us for a life of good deeds, which He has already prepared for us to do.

Jeremiah 29:11 (New Living Translation)

For I know the plans I have for you, "says the LORD. "They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.

Monday, April 25, 2016

5 Years

Five years ago this morning Mom and Dad were murdered in their home. In many ways it seems like just yesterday but in other ways it seems like it has been an eternity! On April 24th, 2011 Mom and Dad were at my house and I grilled lamb chops for Easter dinner. Amazingly, neither of them had ever had lamb chops! Mom asked where did I buy it? How did I prepare it? Later when we were going through Mom and Dad's things, I found a little notebook Mom had in her purse. In it she had written, "Sam's Club...lamb chops...Canadian seasoning". I knew Mom had to have written this on their drive home and she had intended to prepare lamb chops. 

I imagined their conversation as they were driving. How excited they must have been as they discussed the birth of their second great grandchild. We had just been given the news that my daughter and her husband were expecting a boy! I am certain they were excited for Sarah and Troy! Did they talk about the home Bible study they were starting with neighbors? Or perhaps they talked about going to Florida the following winter with Aunt Sis and Uncle Virgil. Oh the plans I know they had! All those plans came to a screeching halt early the next morning. 

I went to the jail last night. One of the young women who has been in my Bible study for nearly a year now just received word that the "deal" being offered her by the District Attorney in order to avoid a trial is 18 years in prison. She's in her late 20's. 18 years seems like a lifetime. Her world came crashing down one night that was not supposed to end the way it did. Her plans were drastically changed that night. Now she sits in jail crying, wondering, what now? My heart breaks for her as I know the guilt she carries. She longs for a "do-over". She would give anything if she could change the events of that night.

Jose Huckleberry, the young man convicted in my parents murder sits in jail now, too. Another night that ended badly. His sentencing hearing is scheduled for this coming Friday. Another young person in his late 20's. A life gone drastically wrong. Is he crying? Is he remorseful for what happened? I wonder. Does he even realize it was 5 years ago today? Would he do things differently if he had another chance?

How quickly our world can change. If nothing else, I have learned how unpredictable life is. I have heard it all my life, but now I truly know that we are not promised tomorrow. If you have loved ones still alive, call them today and let them know you love them and tell them that God loves them, too. I am blessed to know that Mom and Dad are with Jesus in paradise. It does ease the pain although I still wish I could pick up the phone and talk to them.

Several weeks ago I bought lamb chops at Sam's Club and put them in the freezer. Yesterday afternoon, I grilled them just as I had done 5 years ago. I planned it.

Jeremiah 29:11 (Good News Translation)

I alone know the plans I have for you, plans to bring you prosperity and not disaster, plans to bring about the future you hope for.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Verdict - Guilty!

I have longed for this day for 5 years! Ever since Jose was arrested in 2013, I have been following his case not only through Cinnamon Shirk our Victim Witness Advocate but also through an automated system called MOVANS. By signing up for this I receive notices whenever anything is happening in the case against Jose Huckleberry. Just a few minutes ago I received this notice from them:


This e-mail is to inform you that a motion has been filed about the defendant JOSE HUCKLEBERRY and court case number 1331CR00576. The case status is now: Closed

Woo hoo! Finally! The final arguments took place this morning. The prosecuting attorneys did an excellent job! I could feel the passion arise in them as they spoke. This case was personal to them after living it for 5 years! The judge put the case into the hands of the jury around 10:30. After just over 5 nerve wracking hours of deliberations, the jury came back with a verdict. Before the jurors were brought into the courtroom, the judge told us not to show any emotion when the verdict was read. Really? I didn't know if I could do that!

The jurors filed in and the foreman stated they had reached a verdict and handed the file over to the bailiff to give to the judge. The judge then read through the verdict without showing any reaction. He then read the verdict.

In the murder of Donald Willingham in the second degree, guilty. In the murder of Helen Willingham in the second degree, guilty. In the burglary, guilty.

I know I haven't stated those exactly in the correct legal terminology but I didn't get the full description written down. The bottom line is that they declared him guilty on all counts. What a relief! We all did pretty good in holding ourselves together but when the jury had been dismissed and the judge had settled things out with the attorneys about setting a date for the sentencing hearing, I looked at my brother and said, "Ok, can we show emotion now?" I looked over at my sweet niece, Anna Johnsen and although she wasn't making a sound, the tears were flowing down her cheeks! How can you hold back 5 years of emotions?

As the verdicts were read, one of the jurors began sobbing. I can't imagine what this week has been like for them! They had to see horrible pictures, including the autopsy photos. They had to hear over 7 hours of confession as this messed up young man described stabbing 2 elderly people in cold blood in a very brutal fashion. I am grateful to these individuals who gave up a week of their lives, focused on hours and hours of testimony, and came back with a just verdict! I wish I could talk to each one of them and say thank you! 

I have tons of notes from the trial this week and I need to get my head wrapped around it all before I can begin to convey it to you but I will do my best to get it done in a timely manner! Right now, I feel so relieved, emotionally spent, and physically exhausted! Thank you to all of you who have supported our family with your prayers! God has sustained us and brought justice to our family as well as to Mom and Dad.

Job 8:3 (Good News Translation)

God never twists justice;
  He never fails to do what is right.

Thank you, Lord that You never leave us or forsake us!

Trial - Day 4

Today's testimony was intense. I am totally drained - physically and emotionally.  We listened to the rest of Jose's videotaped confession. He was so strung out on drugs that his memory of that fateful morning is very foggy to say the least. The way he repeatedly described the stabbings was very difficult to listen to. 

Jose apparently went to their house in hopes of getting jewelry or a TV - something he could pawn easily for cash. If only he had known that Mom had very little jewelry and they only had 1 older TV in the house perhaps he would have gone to a different house. He also said something about Dad's truck that was sitting in the driveway but for whatever reason, Jose didn't think they were home. 

At first Jose said he and "the dude" were "hand fighting". But he was pretty strong for an "old dude". It turned out that they weren't just "hand fighting", as he called it, because Jose had a knife. A very large, long knife. He said he kept stabbing Dad because he didn't want him to suffer. He was obviously wounded so Jose said he wanted to put him out of his misery. He said that Dad just wouldn't stop. Jose just wanted him to stop moving so he had to keep stabbing him. The blow that caused Dad to finally stop moving punctured Dad's lung. He could have died from many of the different deep wounds but that was the one that did it. 

You could tell Jose was very upset about Mom's death. At first Jose said he was the only one in the house but another time he said someone named Steven actually killed Mom (although he couldn't remember Steven's last name). Jose said he can't get the image of Mom's face out of his head and that she didn't have to die. When Mom fell to the kitchen floor after she had been stabbed her so forcefully it penetrated her sternum and sliced her aorta open, her arms were outstretched. Her feet were perfectly together. Her body formed the shape of a cross. Her beautiful face and lifeless eyes staring up at him from the cold kitchen floor.

After that Jose just wanted to get out of there. He had to jump over all the blood to get out the door (Dad's body was found in the entryway in a very large pool of blood) because he didn't want to "track" and he took off running. He said he "woke up" and he was running. He noticed he was covered in blood so he stopped and washed himself off in a mud puddle. At that point he was coming off the drugs and he really wasn't sure what had happened - a very bad dream.

Mind you, the interrogation lasted for hours and they kept going over and over these descriptions as the detective was trying to get Jose to remember - looking for a new clue - something that would let him know if he acted alone or if others were involved. Grueling! 

Toward the end of this interview (which was over 7 hours long!) he was given the opportunity to write a letter stating what had happened and apologizing to us. It was actually a very moving letter! Of course, it would have meant a lot more if he had pleaded guilty and not put us through all this! I know he is a scared young man.

I will have to process this for a while before I can write too much more about it. I am grateful for so many people who are praying for our family during this time. It is the only thing that has gotten me through thus far. God has truly given me a supernatural peace!

I have mentioned before how I have watched Jose intensely and looked for opportunities to catch his eye. When they were getting ready to break for lunch I was watching Jose as the bailiff led him out of the courtroom. Jose turned and looked right at me. I smiled at him and he smiled back at me. I felt that was a breakthrough. 

The state and the defense both rested their cases at the end of the day. In the morning both sides will give their closing arguments and it will be handed over to the jury. With the detailed videotaped confession, and very little offered in the way of defense, I really expect the jury to declare him guilty but you never know until the verdict comes back. Pray for wisdom and discernment for the jury!

Either way, whether they declare him guilty or innocent I want to contact him. He is currently serving a prison sentence for another crime he committed after this so he will remain incarcerated regardless of the verdict making it possible for me to write to him. I need to give that serious consideration.

I see Jose as a broken young man. He grew up in the foster home system, suffered a lot of abuse as a child, and got into drugs at a young age. He fell into a lifestyle of robbing for money to buy drugs. Such a waste of his life so far! But Jesus loves him. Jesus loves to take broken, hurting people and turn them into new creatures!

2 Corinthians 5:17 (Good News Translation)

Anyone who is joined to Christ is a new being; the old is gone, the new has come.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Trial - Day 3

The trial began with another DNA expert today. It was very hard to listen to because I just did not understand a lot of it. If it were not my parents they were talking about, it would have been pretty boring to me. It certainly has no resemblance to TV shows! It is very difficult to find and identify a person through DNA in a scene like this because of the large amount of blood that covered both of their bodies as well as their home. That took up the entire morning. 

After lunch, the lead detective was called to the stand. He testified about the interrogation process that lead to Jose's confession. Then they began playing the video of the interrogation. We saw about 3 hours of that today. We'll watch the rest of it in the morning and then the defense will present their case.

It was well over 2 hours into the interview before he began to remember the event. He had taken so many drugs and had so much to drink that his memory is sketchy to say the least. Before he got to that night the detective said let's retrace what was happening in the days before the murder. On Good Friday Jose had been baptized and that stuck out in his mind so that seemed to be a good place to begin jogging his memory.

When the detective asked about his baptism, he seemed excited about it. He said that when the pastor raised him up out of the water he felt like he was on fire - as though he were burning. He went on to say that he was so hot he had to change his clothes. Of course, that didn't really make any sense. If he was hot, why would changing out of wet clothes cool him off? My first thought was the demons within him were reacting to the baptismal waters. Maybe I have just watched too many movies in my younger days but I really do wonder about it.

It struck me that during the interrogation process the lead detective prayed with Jose with Jose's permission and Jose prayed as well. It will be interesting to see what is said in the rest of the confession. The one thing that was most fascinating to me about the video we have seen so far, was the fact that seeing Mom's picture seemed to bother Jose more than anything else.

Please keep praying for our family, for Jose, and for justice to prevail. Your prayers are getting us through this and we appreciate it very much!

James 5:16b (Good News Translation)

The prayer of a good person has a powerful effect.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Trial - Second Day

Well the second day of the trial is over and it was much harder than I thought it would be - especially this morning. We heard the autopsy report complete with photos. I did not look at any of the pictures. Just hearing all the little nitty gritty details was extremely difficult! 

I cannot bear to give the details here. Suffice it to say it was a morbid and shocking scene. 

There were quite a few other events that took place today in court. Some testimony from "Mama G" (that will most likely need to be it's own blog post), testimony from one of the DNA experts, testimony from 2 of the detectives in the case. And testimony from a minister. Yes, a minister.

This minister happened to be going door to door in a low-income apartment building on good Friday in 2011. Just 3 days before Mom & Dad were killed. He witnessed to Jose. He said that Jose ended up saying he wanted to accept Jesus as his Savior. He wanted to be baptized. He went with the minister and a few others to the church where Jose was baptized that very day! This minister shared Scripture with Jose trying to be sure that Jose knew what it meant to repent and turn away from his sin. He said Jose was excited about being baptized. Jose even went door to door with him the next morning and agreed to go to church Easter morning. When the pastor went to pick him up, he was not there. He did not go to church. 

What happened in Jose's mind? In his soul? In his spirit? That's what I'm trying to figure out. Obviously he has many issues, one of which is a severe drug addiction. I know this distorts your thinking greatly!

The grace of God is truly with me. I looked at Jose a lot. He would often catch me looking at him. I just keep looking. He looks away quickly when he sees me looking at him. At one point after the autopsy testimonies were done, I was looking at Jose. A feeling of compassion welled up within me. I cannot explain it! He turned at looked at me. I just kept looking at him tenderly. This time he just couldn't seem to quit looking at me. Of course, I cannot communicate with him and that was not my intention but I truly did feel a love for him that is totally unexplainable. Even now as I am writing this I cannot fathom it. Truly it is from God.

Please keep praying for Jose. After our eye contact incident, I felt compelled to pray for God to reveal Himself to Jose. My prayer is that he will see God, feel the love of Jesus, that God will allow him to remember what happened Easter Sunday night and the following morning, and that what was meant for evil will be turned into good!

Genesis 50:20 (English Standard Version)

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.

Lord, use this evil act to bring glory to you! In Jesus' name we pray, Amen!

I wrote the above last night and I had included details of how Mom & Dad died. I generally do not post my writing until I've sat on it a bit, prayed about it, and then gone back and re-read it. Today I knew I had to remove details of their death. 

This morning in my quiet time I was reading my devotional, Oswald Chambers Utmost for His Highest.  I was struck by this:

"But once you receive a commission from Jesus Christ, the memory of what God asks of you will always be there to prod you on to do His will. You will no longer be able to work for Him on the basis of common sense."

I felt the same feelings of compassion for Jose welling up again. I had to fall to my knees and cry out to the Lord for Jose and for me. "Lord, reveal Yourself to me as You also reveal Yourself to Jose!" 

It does not make "common" sense but as my brother Stephen and I were talking about what God is showing me, Stephen said, "The world lives by 'common' sense but God wants us to live by 'holy' sense."

I was struck by my own words I say often to ladies at the jail. "The love Jesus has for you is so great that if you were the only sinner on earth, Jesus would still have died just for YOU!" I know Jesus feels that way about Jose. He is one of Jesus' lost sheep. He will go to any length to bring Jose into the safety of His Presence!

Please keep praying! God is doing a great work in this young man's life as He is also doing a great work in me! Your prayers are sustaining me and I am grateful for each and every one of you!

Acts 22:24 (New Living Translation)

But my life is worth nothing to me unless I use it for finishing the work assigned me by the Lord Jesus-the work of telling others the Good News about the wonderful grace of God.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Trial - Opening Day

As I listened to the opening statements, I really thought about what both sides said. I know how diligently the detectives and prosecuting attorney have worked for nearly five years. Deep in my gut I do believe they have the right person charged but I have to admit, I am biased. For the nearly three years since Jose Huckleberry was arrested, I have prayed for his salvation and that I will forgive him should he be found guilty.

As I watched him often times looking smug while his attorney was talking I began to feel some awful things welling up inside of me. I reminded myself that he really is just a kid. He was only 23 at the time of the murder. He is a drug addict. He did not grow up in a loving home. He has issues. Lord, let me forgive him! 

I think of so many of the young ladies in my Bible study at the jail. Many of them bring the same sort of scenarios. I encourage them. I remind them of how much God loves and forgives them. They must forgive themselves. As these thoughts ramble through my mind, I see the difference. They have admitted their guilt. They are not fighting to prove a lie.

I think that was what bothered me about the jury selection and why I felt so bad for the jurors who had been called as well as the 15 (12 jurors and 3 alternates) who have to put their entire lives on hold and listen to sometimes boring but, more often, gruesome evidence. Assuming he is guilty, if only he would "man up" and admit his wrongdoing we wouldn't have to go through all this.

When the most gruesome pictures were shown I did not look at them. Instead I focused on Jose. He looked right at the ones of Dad but when they showed the ones of Mom, he blinked a lot, looked down or away. It seemed to bother him. Was I reading too much into his body language? Perhaps. After all, I only had a side view of him. So many questions in my mind. 

Please join me in praying for justice. If he is guilty, may he be convicted. If he is innocent, may he be set free. We may never really know what happened but one thing I do know, Mom and Dad are walking streets of gold! They are praising our Lord and Savior. They have no more pain. No more worries or concerns. They have laid up their treasures in heaven.

Matthew 6:19-21 (The Message)

Don't hoard treasure down here where it gets eaten by moths and corroded by rust or-worse!-stolen by burglars. Stockpile treasure in heaven, where it's safe from moth and rust and burglars. It's obvious, isn't it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.

Mom and Dad spent a lifetime stockpiling treasures in heaven. It is the place they most wanted to be and they wanted to take as many people with them as possible!

What about you? Where are your treasures? Where do you most want to be? Oh, my friend, if you do not know the love of Jesus, allow me to introduce you! You will never regret giving your life over to him! Don't go off on some wild goose chase. Jesus is standing at your door gently knocking. Won't you let him in before it is too late?

Colossians 2:2-4 (The Message)

I want you woven into a tapestry of love, in touch with everything there is to know of God. Then you will have minds confident and at rest, focused on Christ, God's great mystery. All the richest treasures of wisdom and knowledge are embedded in that mystery and nowhere else. And we've been shown the mystery! I'm telling you this because I don't want anyone leading you off on some wild-goose chase, after other so-called mysteries or "the Secret".