Frustrated with the legal system, the family of a slain New Jersey softball star turned to the Web. A judge had offered to give the man accused in her murder the minimum in exchange for a guilty plea.
The family created a savvy website, http://www.justicefornicole.org/ and loaded it with pictures of the victim, Nicole Ayres; details of the crime; and an online petition that people could sign to show their support for a stiffer sentence.
Nicole's cousin, Kellie Lando, said the website generated nearly 6,000 signatures from people across the nation. A pile of print-outs landed on the desk of state Superior Court Judge James Palmer Jr., who sits in Mt. Holly, Burlington County.
Letters from Nicole's family and friends were added to the stack, along with arguments from the prosecutor that said Stephen Headley should get a life sentence. Headley had a criminal record when he allegedly stabbed the victim 36 times in a brief encounter.
The judge recently changed his mind, saying he had the opportunity to review the case files, the prosecutor's arguments and all the correspondence. Many of the online messages came from people affiliated with Keep New Jersey Safe, a non-profit victim's rights group, and Parents of Murdered Children, in Los Angeles.
Assistant County Prosecutor John Brennan said he had never seen such an outpouring of support stirred up by an online petition. "The parents were going to do everything possible to get justice for their daughter," he said. "It's important they do this... express their feelings."
But Headley's public defender, Cedric Edwards, saw the effort at pressuring the judge. He said many murderers get 30 years, and only the worst offenders get a life sentence.
Lando took exception to these remarks. "This was for Nicole; she is the victim and she cannot speak for the justice she deserves... A family should not have to go to the lengths that we did to get what our system should be doing and we are not going to stop here," she said. "We will continue to fight for victims' rights."