The family of Nicole Ayres, a celebrated softball star who was stabbed to death by a man she barely knew, wonder whether a trial would have revealed the question that has haunted them: 'Why?'
But that door has shut. Stephen Headley, a Southampton man, pleaded guilty at a sanitized hearing in a Burlington County courtroom on Dec. 4. Calmly, he said 'yes' again and again when asked if he attacked her, if it happened in a secluded soccer field, if the hour was early on Sept. 13, 2010. Then, he admitted he knew his actions would cause her death.
There was no mention of how he apparently flew into a rage, slashed her in the head and torso 36 times and then left her to die. The only chilling thing was his appearance. Dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit and shackled at the hands and feet, he stared straight ahead, emotionless.
Afterwards, her aunt, Suzanne DeCample-Calabrese, said the family was "kinda looking forward to a trial." They had hoped they might learn more about the genesis of the crime. They also believed it would lead to a conviction that would put Headley away forever.
In police reports, Headley's friends described him as a man with a short fuse who liked weapons and had "homicidal fantasies." Was that a clue as to why this happened?
Assistant Prosecutor John Brennan said that "no one will ever know what really happened" or why. Nicole is not alive to tell it, he said. Brennan also said that he would not have called Headley's friends as trial witnesses because their opinions were not evidence. Instead, he would have methodically detailed the proofs of the case - the knife that was recovered at the scene, Headley's confession to his grandmother, his brief statements to police, and the blood found on his backpack.
Cedric Edwards, Headley's public defender, also questions whether a trial might have shed more light on the case. "The only thing you can find out is they met and she got killed," he said. And, if Headley had testified, the family would only hear his "explanation of what he did."
Still, the testimony might have provided more details about what happened and might have hinted at a motive.
But a trial also brings pain. Richard Ayres, Nicole's father, said the family suffers everyday. "It's the worst you could ever feel in your life, times ten," he said.
But Richard believes the family did right by Nicole by fighting for a harsh sentence for Headley. Initially, the judge considered sentencing him to 30 years, the minimum for murder. After the family protested and created a website to get support, the judge reconsidered.
When Headley is sentenced Jan. 2 he faces 50 years under the terms of a new plea agreement. That's more than many murderers receive.
Richard Ayres said the family believes that Headley will likely die in prison or make some mistake that will push his parole eligibility date back. "It's in his DNA to do bad things to people," he said. "We're okay with the 50 years."