Last Wednesday, the day Ricky Gray was to have been executed, Risa Gomez started her day as she has many in this 10th year since the murders: struck by sorrow. Hers is a particular kind of sadness, one so complicated and shot through with contradiction that it is hard for her to articulate, and so she rarely does.
Her sister knows. So do her friends. Other than that, there is no easy way to say, I was a juror for the Harvey family murders. For five days in August 2006, I saw images I will never unsee and heard testimony I will forever remember.
A 28-year-old man kills his wife. Two months later, on New Year’s Day 2006, he invades a home and kills a couple and their young daughters. One child is in third grade; one is in preschool. He and his accomplice steal two laptops and a wedding ring. They take homemade cookies and set the house on fire. To this day, the murders of the Harvey family — Bryan, Kathryn, Stella and Ruby — cannot be looked upon directly. They are too painful. Not a week later, this same man, Ricky Gray, and his accomplice kill another man and his wife and her daughter, the Tucker-Baskerville family.
Gray was brought to trial for the Harvey murders. His accomplice would plead guilty to the murders of the Tucker-Baskervilles, and will live out the rest of his days in prison.
In the jury room during the penalty phase of Gray’s trial, the jurors made five columns, one for each count against him. For each count, they voted L or D. Life or death. D, D, D, D, D, Gomez voted. Other jurors could not come to that decision. The testimony about the physical and sexual abuse Gray’s family said he experienced as a child stayed with them. "I am waiting for God to speak to me," Gomez remembers one juror saying. “Well, God has spoken to me,” she remembers replying. They agreed to a death sentence in the murders of the two children, and life in prison for the other counts, killing more than one person at a time, killing someone during a robbery and killing more than one person in three years.
And 10 years pass. In the intervening years, Gomez says there is rarely a day that she does not think of the family, and, of late, their killer. Gray’s appeals drag on. Imagine pulling a trigger and waiting a decade for the bullet to strike. A lot changes in that time.
Gomez had only lived in the city for four years when she received her jury summons. In the decade since, Gomez, who works for a brokerage firm, has become invested in Richmond. She has come to love it, and to see how interconnected this city-town is -- how paths cross, how actions have ripples that seem to go on forever: the random killing of a family, the abuse of the child who grow up to be the man who would kill that family.
She has come to understand how grievous a wound it was that Gray inflicted upon the city, but also to have some empathy for the wounds inflicted upon him. Empathy is not the same as excusing him for his actions. She does not. “You have to take responsibility for your actions at some point.”
Gomez says she did not have an easy childhood herself, but she had her older sister to guide her.
Still, in the last several years, she has learned a lot about childhood trauma. Through her volunteer work for TEDxRVA, she has learned about programs that help reduce prison recidivism, that provide mentors, that keep troubled youth out of jail and that work to reform the juvenile justice system. She says that some of those program leaders will be speaking at next month’s TEDx event and, if it were up to her, the entire thing would revolve around how to support and nurture youth whose lives are marked by trauma. She would connect all the dots between us and the Harveys and Gray. She would plead for everyone to support these organizations, to mentor a child, to take all the grief and anger unleashed 10 years ago and turn it into something healing.
“I want to get up on stage and shout, ‘No more Ricky Grays,’ ” she says. “He didn’t have a chance. He was 28 when he committed his crimes. He already had spent a third of his life in jail. He had a broken family. He was sexually abused. He had all this pain and rage and he inflicted it upon the city.
“You see how much pain he caused. You read it in the comments every time there is an article. You read it in faces of people who knew the Harveys. I would like to think that at some point there was a tipping point for him, a point where he could have taken a different path with positive reinforcement or a program or a person.”
She thinks about a photo of Gray as a boy that surfaced during the trial. He was wearing a white sailor suit and matching hat. Gomez cannot help but think that if someone had gotten to him then, things may not have turned out as they did.
She was among the first jurors called. Gray was there. She didn’t know who he was. The prosecutors asked: Are you willing to impose a sentence of life in prison? Yes, she said. Are you willing to impose the death penalty? Yes, she said, thinking it would depend on how heinous the crime was. She had no idea.
She will never forget the autopsy reports. She will never forget the prosecution’s cross-examination of Gray’s sister: You suffered the same abuse as he, but you didn’t go out and hurt people. “Only myself,” the sister replied. Or Ryan Carey, the young Arlington man whom Gray and his accomplice attacked before they killed the Harveys. Carey could not lift his hand to take the oath to tell the truth because the knife damage the pair had inflicted upon him had maimed him. And she remembers the explanation of the levels of privilege that Gray would be able to earn in prison if he behaved. She could imagine him sitting in an inmate lounge one day watching TV.
“He had been in prison a third of his life. He kind of showed he excelled at prison. That’s what kept going through my head. This is his lifestyle. This is what he is used to. A life sentence isn’t punishment.”
Gomez has never spoken publicly about the case. To her knowledge, none of the jurors have. She wrestled with whether to speak now, but was seized with a sense of urgency as Gray’s scheduled March 16 execution date neared. The Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted him a stay so the Supreme Court could decide whether it will hear his case. If it does not, he will be executed and people will call it closure, when, in reality, she says, it never ends.
“It all still happened and it could happen again if we don’t intervene. That’s what I want people to realize. We all should be doing some part, making some effort to make a positive impact on someone else, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant it seems, because it is all going to come back to you.”
This is the complicated nature of her sorrow. A feeling that comes close to regret battles with her resolve that she did the right thing and that the right thing wasn’t good enough.
“I mean, it’s just living with my decision,” she says. “That was the decision I made. No matter what reassurances you get from friends and family or in recalling the horror of it all, you still …” Her eyes well with tears and she shakes her head “You know, there are no winners.”
This, too, is the complicated nature of her sorrow: She used to live in the Fan, just down the street from Fox Elementary, where Stella Harvey was a student. Gomez would go home for lunch and walk her little dachshund, and when she passed the school, the girls would flock to the fence to pet him through the chain link. A few weeks after the trial, when she was walking her dog past Fox, a memory flooded back: Girls dashing to the fence, cooing over the dog, and one child calling back, “Stella, Stella come here.” And Gomez wonders if, on that day, Stella Harvey petted her dog.
She stands there, outside the school, suspended in a moment between what was and what will never be, and she weeps.