After my brother and I left the police station, two officers drove us to a KFC drive-thru in Santa Fe, while we listened to a top-40 radio station. They ordered fried chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, then passed two plastic bags to the backseat without turning around to look at us. We were on our way to stay at a hotel for the night since both of our primary guardians were gone: Grandma Betty was dead and Mom was being processed at the county jail.
I was 15 and Nick was 18, so the officers dropped of us off alone because Nick was technically an adult. All three of us had lived in Betty’s house for the past year, but now, it was a crime scene. Nick and I weren’t allowed to return home for 24 hours since the front yard was still partitioned off with yellow tape that read “DO NOT CROSS.” As we drove through the desert with warm bags of food on our laps, Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love” played through the car speakers, and the officer who was driving sang along absentmindedly. You cut me open and I keep bleedin’, keep, keep bleedin’ love.
I thought of Mom’s bloody hands, and looked down at my own fingers. They were still stained from pressing each one into black ink, and rolling the tips from left to right against a sheet of paper for my evidence file at the police station. I closed my eyes, and tried not to replay what I’d seen the night before: Mom in a bloodstained shirt, standing over her own mother’s body in the dark. I’d spent hours in an interrogation room, while detectives used words like “lacerations” and “blood loss” and “organ failure” to describe what had happened.
When Nick and I arrived at our hotel, one of the officers told us that news of our grandmother’s death and mother’s arrest had probably already reached the rest of the small town where we lived. I thought the officers were going to stick around for a while, but they left almost as soon as we swiped the key card to our room. After placing our untouched KFC dinners on the coffee table, Nick and I turned on the TV.
The first thing that came on the screen was a small adobe house, with a turquoise door and four matching pillars, partitioned off with yellow caution tape. It took me a moment to realize what we were looking at: I could almost see the window to my bedroom, but the police cars parked out front were blocking it. In the top right-hand corner of the screen, Mom’s mugshot appeared, as the words “WOMAN STABS MOTHER 20 TIMES” floated across a blue banner at the bottom.
In the days and weeks after the murder, I tried to avoid watching and reading the news, but a friend from school contacted me after a local paper suggested that the prosecutor in Mom’s case was considering seeking the death penalty in her trial.
“Is that what you want?” my friend asked in a text message. I had no idea what to think. Was I supposed to want my mom to die? Was I supposed to tell people it was what she deserved? Was it supposed to make the death of my grandmother hurt less? The day before the murder, I was just a high school sophomore worried about fitting in, passing math, and applying to college. Now, I was the granddaughter of a murder victim and the daughter of her suspected murderer.
In the comments sections of news articles about Mom’s case, people said they wanted her to die. They said she was unfit to be a mother. They said they felt scared and sorry for Nick and me. They said justice needed to be served. But justice sounded a lot like revenge, and nobody ever asked what justice meant to us. I had learned about capital punishment in social studies class, and the question that drove students to debate this issue was: Are we supposed to kill the killer? As I read comments saying my mother should “burn in hell,” I realized that in this case, killing the killer would only mean losing another person I loved.
Mom was charged with first-degree murder, but ultimately, the prosecutor didn’t seek a death sentence. More than a year later, I sat behind the stand with my right hand on a Bible and a plastic trashcan next to me in case I needed to throw up again. It was the summer before my senior year of high school in 2009—and three months after New Mexico had abolished the death penalty—but I couldn’t shake that surreal feeling of wondering whether my own mother would be executed.
Two weeks after the murder, I moved to Florida to live with my dad and stepmom. When I finally returned to New Mexico for the trial, I hadn’t seen Mom in 10 long months—time I’d spent waking up in the middle of the night and running out of my room just to make sure it wasn’t happening all over again. I wondered if I would ever know what justice was supposed to look like for my family and me.
“Do you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?” the officer asked me after the jury filed in. A woman named Shirley or Patty or Karen was sitting beside me, as I trembled behind the stand. She was the victim’s advocate provided by the district attorney’s office, a soft-spoken woman who was hired to sit with me if I got upset or scared during my testimony.
“I’m here because of the severity of the trauma,” she whispered. All morning, while we waited in a small office in the courthouse, the advocate kept saying, “Now, sweetie, you let me know if you feel like you’re in danger.” But the truth was that I didn’t know if I thought Mom was dangerous. I didn’t know if I was afraid of her, or if I still loved her the same way I did before the murder.
Mom didn’t look at me while the attorneys asked me questions about my schoolwork and GPA, reminding me to speak louder so jury members could hear. The prosecutor then asked me to describe what had happened after I went to sleep on the night of the murder: “Did something wake you up?”
I told the jury about the screams like I had told the detectives about the screams: how, at first, all I could hear was: “I’m burning.”
Sitting in the courtroom, I could hear Betty screaming all over again: I’m burning. I’m burning. I’m burning. I remembered how I decided to stay in bed a little longer, hiding beneath my blanket, waiting for the house to get quiet again. I didn’t tell the jury how I initially thought the house was on fire. Why else would Betty have thought she was burning?
When I recounted how I finally got out of bed after looking at my cell phone, and found Mom covered in blood in Betty’s room, the prosecutor asked me three times why it took me so long to leave.
“Why didn’t you leave your room right away?”
“At some point, you finally did get out of bed, right?”
“About how long after, after you looked at the phone, did you get out of bed?”
The victim’s advocate was sitting so close, I could hear her breathing, but I felt so alone in front of all of those people—a courtroom full of reporters and jurors and members of the public who thought they wanted the best for me.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of Mom during my testimony; I didn’t know if I wanted to get up and hug her, or get up and run away from her. Even though there was no threat of execution, nothing could’ve prepared me for the feeling of testifying at my own mother’s murder trial. It was already hard enough to know that she might end up going to prison. I wanted to say the right thing—for Mom and for Betty and for me—but I didn’t know what to do with all my guilt. At the end of the week-long trial, the jury came back with a verdict after deliberating for only an hour. Mom lay her head down on the table after the judge announced that she was guilty of second-degree murder.
Two days after my 17th birthday, Mom received the maximum sentence of 15 years, and was transferred to the women’s prison in Grants, NM. At the time, I was unsure of how I felt about Mom’s sentence—if I should feel safe and relieved, or sad and afraid—but I knew it didn’t change what had happened to Betty. I knew my family would never be the same after suffering two incomparable losses, but when I came to terms with what had happened, I was able to find my own definition of justice.
In the eight years Mom has spent in prison, New Mexico has consistently ranked as one of America’s most dangerous states; today, there are reportedly 597 violent crimes for every 100,000 residents in the state—1.5 times the national rate of 366 incidents. And last month, Gov. Susana Martinez announced her controversial decision to support reinstating the death penalty in 2017, citing recent deadly attacks on police officers across the United States. But survivors of violence know that more murder can only bring more grief. Although Mom wasn’t affected by New Mexico’s decision to repeal the death penalty in 2009, I felt and continue to feel an enormous sense of relief for the families of those who were. Reinstating capital punishment would silence an already invisible community of families related to both the victim and offender; while it provides closure for the case, it doesn’t do the same for loved ones. Bringing back the death penalty would also inspire in many people the same anxiety I felt that summer when I feared my mother was going to die.
New Mexico used to be home, but now, even its landscape is a source of grief for me. Before Betty died, she, Mom, Nick, and I lived off a dirt road outside of a Native American pueblo, just north of Santa Fé. Every time I go back to visit, seeing the desert hills through a car window on the highway always reminds me of the smell of KFC and black ink still smudged on my fingers.
I used to think I’d always have to live with the same anger and confusion I felt the night I saw Mom’s face on the evening news. Years later, I’ve learned that I can’t mourn my grandmother’s loss or honor her memory if I’m angry enough to believe that murder can fix things. There will always be people who think justice can’t be served for Betty if Mom is still alive, but I know how much it hurts to grieve after a murder. I find peace in knowing that I didn’t have to grieve two.
Kristi DiLallo is the founding editor of 'The Grief Diaries,' an online magazine of art and writing about loss. She is a teaching fellow at Columbia University, where she is completing her MFA in writing.