For a while, as prosecutors tried to persuade a jury last month to convict Bruce Strachan of first-degree murder in the 2009 shooting deaths of his estranged wife and her two friends, mothers Dishune Moore and Ruby Pertee sat holding hands and dabbing at their tears.
They’ll be together again this week as they watch Strachan either get life in prison or a death sentence for the crimes, but although their grief has united them, each woman has a different idea of what justice should look like going forward.
Moore, the mother of victim Ronald Wright, believes Strachan should die. Pertee, the mother of Strachan’s wife, Yamika Murphy, wants a life sentence for Strachan, but only because she believes that’s the opposite of what he wants.
“I don’t think he should get off that easy,” Pertee said after jurors convicted Strachan. “He shouldn’t get what he wants.”
It took a jury just four hours of deliberations last month to convict Strachan of the murders of Murphy, Wright and their friend Debbie Sears in a gun attack outside Murphy’s Lake Worth apartment. The convictions make him eligible for the death penalty, and the same jurors who convicted him are expected to return to court today to begin deciding his fate.
The deaths of Wright and Sears, who were both 24, was collateral damage from the fallout of Murphy and Strachan’s separation after just a few months of marriage. According to testimony during Strachan’s two-week trial, he threatened Murphy a month before the attack that he would come back “like a thief in the night” and kill her and everyone with her.
In the years since her son’s death, Moore has attended countless court hearings, lamented every delay in the case and waited for the death verdict that she hopes she will finally hear this week. She hosts a yearly gathering in Wright’s honor every summer. At the time of his death, she said, her son had planned to go back to school and was looking forward to one day having a family of his own.
According to testimony in the trial, Wright was the first person Strachan shot when he emerged from the bushes with an AK-47 style assault rifle. Wright stumbled towards Murphy’s apartment and made it inside, where, before collapsing, he told witnesses Strachan had shot him.
“My son didn’t have a choice between life and death,” she said. “That’s why I feel like he (Strachan) should get the death penalty.”
If the jury opts for death at the end of a what is expected to be a four-day penalty phase trial this week, Strachan would become one of few Palm Beach County defendants sent to death row since the 1990s.
Prosecutors Aleathea McRoberts and Terri Skiles will try to convince the 12 jurors that Strachan should be put to death. Public Defender Carey Haughwout, along with Assistant Public Defenders Elizabeth Ramsey and David McPherrin, will try to persuade them to spare his life.
Strachan himself turned down a life sentence deal offered him several times. His last rejection came just before his trial began. That, along with statements he made in jailhouse calls with his sister asking her to “make sure they give me the lethal injection,” is why Pertee and other of the victims’ relatives believe Strachan wants the death penalty.
And it’s the main reason she hopes he gets life.
But she also has heard about the long process of appeals in death penalty cases, and doesn’t look forward to the potential of decades of appeals, hearings and stays.
Moore doesn’t think the process will be that long. She says she’s spent the past few months reading about the Timely Justice Act, a Florida law Gov. Rick Scott signed in June that is aimed at accelerating the state’s death penalty process.
The new measure tightens deadlines for death penalty appeals and, among other things, will require the governor to sign a death warrant within 30 days of the Florida Supreme Court’s review of a capital conviction and require the state to execute the defendant within 180 days of the signed warrant.
The act, according to the American Bar Association, is the first of its kind in the country.
“I’m thinking that with that, we won’t have to wait as long, and it’ll be over,” Moore said.
For both Moore and Pertee, the wait to find out whether Strachan will join the more than 400 Florida inmates on death row could end this week.
In the meantime, their difference of opinion between wanting life or death for Strachan has been easily overshadowed through the past several weeks by the mutual pain at the thought of yet another holiday season without their children.
Testimony in the penalty phase of the case is expected to wrap up Thursday, after which jurors will either recommend life or death. Circuit Judge Karen Miller could override a death recommendation and give Strachan life in prison, but if they recommend life she cannot sentence him to death.